Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Walter Scott

Letter iv.

The Fairy Superstition is derived from different sources — The Classical Worship of the Silvans, or Rural Deities, proved by Roman Altars discovered — The Gothic Duergar, or Dwarfs — Supposed to be derived from the Northern Laps, or Fins —“The Niebelungen–Lied”— King Laurin’s Adventure — Celtic Fairies of a gayer character, yet their pleasures empty and illusory — Addicted to carry off Human Beings, both Infants and Adults — Adventures of a Butler in Ireland — The Elves supposed to pay a Tax to Hell — The Irish, Welsh, Highlanders, and Manxmen held the same belief — It was rather rendered more gloomy by the Northern Traditions — Merlin and Arthur carried off by the Fairies — Also Thomas of Erceldoune — His Amour with the Queen of Elfland — His re-appearance in latter times — Another account from Reginald Scot — Conjectures on the derivation of the word Fairy.

We may premise by observing, that the classics had not forgotten to enrol in their mythology a certain species of subordinate deities, resembling the modern elves in their habits. Good old Mr. Gibb, of the Advocates’ Library (whom all lawyers whose youth he assisted in their studies, by his knowledge of that noble collection, are bound to name with gratitude), used to point out, amongst the ancient altars under his charge, one which is consecrated, Diis campestribus, and usually added, with a wink, “The fairies, ye ken.”22 This relic of antiquity was discovered near Roxburgh Castle, and a vicinity more delightfully appropriate to the abode of the silvan deities can hardly be found.

22 Another altar of elegant form and perfectly preserved, was, within these few weeks, dug up near the junction of the Leader and the Tweed, in the neighbourhood of the village of Newstead, to the east of Melrose. It was inscribed by Carrius Domitianus, the prefect of the twentieth legion, to the god Sylvanus, forming another instance how much the wild and silvan character of the country disposed the feelings of the Romans to acknowledge the presence of the rural deities. The altar is preserved at Drygrange, the seat of Mr. Tod.

Two rivers of considerable size, made yet more remarkable by the fame which has rendered them in some sort classical, unite their streams beneath the vestiges of an extensive castle, renowned in the wars with England, and for the valiant, noble, and even royal blood, which has been shed around and before it — a landscape ornamented with the distant village and huge abbey tower of Kelso, arising out of groves of aged trees — the modern mansion of Fleurs, with its terrace, its woods, and its extensive lawn — form altogether a kingdom for Oberon and Titania to reign in, or any spirit who, before their time, might love scenery, of which the majesty, and even the beauty, impress the mind with a sense of awe mingled with pleasure. These silvans, satyrs, and fauns with whom superstition peopled the lofty banks and tangled copses of this romantic country, were obliged to give place to deities very nearly resembling themselves in character, who probably derive some of their attributes from their classic predecessors, although more immediately allied to the barbarian conquerors. We allude to the fairies, which, as received into the popular creed, and as described by the poets who have made use of them as machinery, are certainly among the most pleasing legacies of fancy.

Dr. Leyden, who exhausted on this subject, as upon most others, a profusion of learning, found the first idea of the elfin people in the Northern opinions concerning the duergar, or dwarfs.23 These were, however, it must be owned, spirits of a coarser sort, more laborious vocation, and more malignant temper, and in all respects less propitious to humanity, than the fairies (properly so called), which were the invention of the Celtic people, and displayed that superiority of taste and fancy which, with the love of music and poetry, has been generally ascribed to their race, through its various classes and modifications.

23 See the essay on the Fairy Superstition, in the “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,” of which many of the materials were contributed by Dr. Leyden, and the whole brought into its present form by the author.

In fact, there seems reason to conclude that these duergar were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish, and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asæ, sought the most retired regions of the North, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their Eastern invaders. They were a little, diminutive race, but possessed of some skill probably in mining or smelting minerals, with which the country abounds. Perhaps also they might, from their acquaintance with the changes of the clouds, or meteorological phenomena, be judges of weather, and so enjoy another title to supernatural skill. At any rate, it has been plausibly supposed that these poor people, who sought caverns and hiding-places from the persecution of the Asæ, were in some respects compensated for inferiority in strength and stature by the art and power with which the superstition of the enemy invested them. These oppressed yet dreaded fugitives obtained, naturally enough, the character of the German spirits called Kobold, from which the English goblin and the Scottish bogle, by some inversion and alteration of pronunciation, are evidently derived.

The Kobolds were a species of gnomes, who haunted the dark and solitary places, and were often seen in the mines, where they seemed to imitate the labours of the miners, and sometimes took pleasure in frustrating their objects and rendering their toil unfruitful. Sometimes they were malignant, especially if neglected or insulted; but sometimes also they were indulgent to individuals whom they took under their protection. When a miner, therefore, hit upon a rich vein of ore, the inference commonly was, not that he possessed more skill, industry, or even luck, than his fellow-workmen, but that the spirits of the mine had directed him to the treasure. The employment and apparent occupation of these subterranean gnomes or fiends, led very naturally to identify the Fin, or Laplander, with the Kobold; but it was a bolder stretch of the imagination which confounded this reserved and sullen race with the livelier and gayer spirit which bears correspondence with the British fairy. Neither can we be surprised that the duergar, ascribed by many persons to this source, should exhibit a darker and more malignant character than the elves that revel by moonlight in more southern climates.

According to the old Norse belief, these dwarfs form the current machinery of the Northern Sagas, and their inferiority in size is represented as compensated by skill and wisdom superior to those of ordinary mortals. In the “Niebelungen–Lied,” one of the oldest romances of Germany, and compiled, it would seem, not long after the time of Attila, Theodorick of Bern, or of Verona, figures among a cycle of champions over whom he presides, like the Charlemagne of France or Arthur of England. Among others vanquished by him is the Elf King, or Dwarf Laurin, whose dwelling was in an enchanted garden of roses, and who had a body-guard of giants, a sort of persons seldom supposed to be themselves conjurers. He becomes a formidable opponent to Theodorick and his chivalry; but as he attempted by treachery to attain the victory, he is, when overcome, condemned to fill the dishonourable yet appropriate office of buffoon and juggler at the Court of Verona.24

24 See an abstract, by the late learned Henry Weber, of “A Lay on this subject of King Laurin,” complied by Henry of Osterdingen. “Northern Antiquities,” Edinburgh, 1814.

Such possession of supernatural wisdom is still imputed by the natives of the Orkney and Zetland Islands to the people called Drows, being a corruption of duergar or dwarfs, and who may, in most other respects, be identified with the Caledonian fairies. Lucas Jacobson Debes, who dates his description of Feroe from his Pathmos, in Thorshaven, March 12, 1670, dedicates a long chapter to the spectres who disturbed his congregation, and sometimes carried off his hearers. The actors in these disturbances he states to be the Skow, or Biergen–Troldi.e., the spirits of the woods and mountains, sometimes called subterranean people, and adds, they appeared in deep caverns and among horrid rocks; as also, that they haunted the places where murders or other deeds of mortal sin had been acted. They appear to have been the genuine northern dwarfs, or Trows, another pronunciation of Trollds, and are considered by the reverend author as something very little better than actual fiends.

But it is not only, or even chiefly, to the Gothic race that we must trace the opinions concerning the elves of the middle ages; these, as already hinted, were deeply blended with the attributes which the Celtic tribes had, from the remotest ages, ascribed to their deities of rocks, valleys, and forests. We have already observed, what indeed makes a great feature of their national character, that the power of the imagination is peculiarly active among the Celts, and leads to an enthusiasm concerning national music and dancing, national poetry and song, the departments in which fancy most readily indulges herself. The Irish, the Welsh, the Gael, or Scottish Highlander, all tribes of Celtic descent, assigned to the Men of Peace, Good Neighbours, or by whatever other names they called these sylvan pigmies, more social habits, and a course of existence far more gay, than the sullen and heavy toils of the more saturnine Duergar. Their elves did not avoid the society of men, though they behaved to those who associated with them with caprice, which rendered it dangerous to displease them; and although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.

The employment, the benefits, the amusements of the Fairy court, resembled the aerial people themselves. Their government was always represented as monarchical. A King, more frequently a Queen of Fairies, was acknowledged; and sometimes both held their court together. Their pageants and court entertainments comprehended all that the imagination could conceive of what was, by that age, accounted gallant and splendid. At their processions they paraded more beautiful steeds than those of mere earthly parentage — the hawks and hounds which they employed in their chase were of the first race. At their daily banquets, the board was set forth with a splendour which the proudest kings of the earth dared not aspire to; and the hall of their dancers echoed to the most exquisite music. But when viewed by the eye of a seer the illusion vanished. The young knights and beautiful ladies showed themselves as wrinkled carles and odious hags — their wealth turned into slate-stones — their splendid plate into pieces of clay fantastically twisted — and their victuals, unsavoured by salt (prohibited to them, we are told, because an emblem of eternity), became tasteless and insipid — the stately halls were turned into miserable damp caverns — all the delights of the Elfin Elysium vanished at once. In a word, their pleasures were showy, but totally unsubstantial — their activity unceasing, but fruitless and unavailing — and their condemnation appears to have consisted in the necessity of maintaining the appearance of constant industry or enjoyment, though their toil was fruitless and their pleasures shadowy and unsubstantial. Hence poets have designed them as “the crew that never rest.” Besides the unceasing and useless bustle in which these spirits seemed to live, they had propensities unfavourable and distressing to mortals.

One injury of a very serious nature was supposed to be constantly practised by the fairies against “the human mortals,” that of carrying off their children, and breeding them as beings of their race. Unchristened infants were chiefly exposed to this calamity; but adults were also liable to be abstracted from earthly commerce, notwithstanding it was their natural sphere. With respect to the first, it may be easily conceived that the want of the sacred ceremony of introduction into the Christian church rendered them the more obnoxious to the power of those creatures, who, if not to be in all respects considered as fiends, had nevertheless, considering their constant round of idle occupation, little right to rank themselves among good spirits, and were accounted by most divines as belonging to a very different class. An adult, on the other hand, must have been engaged in some action which exposed him to the power of the spirits, and so, as the legal phrase went, “taken in the manner.” Sleeping on a fairy mount, within which the Fairy court happened to be held for the time, was a very ready mode of obtaining a pass for Elfland. It was well for the individual if the irate elves were contented, on such occasions, with transporting him through the air to a city at some forty miles’ distance, and leaving, perhaps, his hat or bonnet on some steeple between, to mark the direct line of his course. Others, when engaged in some unlawful action, or in the act of giving way to some headlong and sinful passion, exposed themselves also to become inmates of Fairyland.

The same belief on these points obtained in Ireland. Glanville, in his “Eighteenth Relation,” tells us of the butler of a gentleman, a neighbour of the Earl of Orrery, who was sent to purchase cards. In crossing the fields, he saw a table surrounded by people apparently feasting and making merry. They rose to salute him, and invited him to join in their revel; but a friendly voice from the party whispered in his ear, “Do nothing which this company invite you to.” Accordingly, when he refused to join in feasting, the table vanished, and the company began to dance and play on musical instruments; but the butler would not take part in these recreations. They then left off dancing, and betook themselves to work; but neither in this would the mortal join them. He was then left alone for the present; but in spite of the exertions of my Lord Orrery, in spite of two bishops who were his guests at the time, in spite of the celebrated Mr. Greatrix, it was all they could do to prevent the butler from being carried off bodily from amongst them by the fairies, who considered him as their lawful prey. They raised him in the air above the heads of the mortals, who could only run beneath, to break his fall when they pleased to let him go. The spectre which formerly advised the poor man continued to haunt him, and at length discovered himself to be the ghost of an acquaintance who had been dead for seven years. “You know,” added he, “I lived a loose life, and ever since have I been hurried up and down in a restless condition, with the company you saw, and shall be till the day of judgment.” He added, “that if the butler had acknowledged God in all his ways, he had not suffered so much by their means; he reminded him that he had not prayed to God in the morning before he met with this company in the field, and, moreover, that he was then going on an unlawful business.”

It is pretended that Lord Orrery confirmed the whole of this story, even to having seen the butler raised into the air by the invisible beings who strove to carry him off. Only he did not bear witness to the passage which seems to call the purchase of cards an unlawful errand.25

25 “Sadducismus Triumphatus,” by Joseph Glanville, p. 131. Edinburgh, 1790.

Individuals, whose lives had been engaged in intrigues of politics or stratagems of war, were sometimes surreptitiously carried off to Fairyland; as Alison Pearson, the sorceress who cured Archbishop Adamson, averred that she had recognised in the Fairy court the celebrated Secretary Lethington and the old Knight of Buccleuch, the one of whom had been the most busy politician, the other one of the most unwearied partisans of Queen Mary, during the reign of that unfortunate queen. Upon the whole, persons carried off by sudden death were usually suspected of having fallen into the hands of the fairies, and unless redeemed from their power, which it was not always safe to attempt, were doomed to conclude their lives with them. We must not omit to state that those who had an intimate communication with these spirits, while they were yet inhabitants of middle earth, were most apt to be seized upon and carried off to Elfland before their death.

The reason assigned for this kidnapping of the human race, so peculiar to the elfin people, is said to be that they were under a necessity of paying to the infernal regions a yearly tribute out of their population, which they were willing to defray by delivering up to the prince of these regions the children of the human race, rather than their own. From this it must be inferred, that they have offspring among themselves, as it is said by some authorities, and particularly by Mr. Kirke, the minister of Aberfoyle. He indeed adds that, after a certain length of life, these spirits are subject to the universal lot of mortality — a position, however, which has been controverted, and is scarcely reconcilable to that which holds them amenable to pay a tax to hell, which infers existence as eternal as the fire which is not quenched. The opinions on the subject of the fairy people here expressed, are such as are entertained in the Highlands and some remote quarters of the Lowlands of Scotland. We know, from the lively and entertaining legends published by Mr. Crofton Croker — which, though in most cases told with the wit of the editor and the humour of his country, contain points of curious antiquarian information — that the opinions of the Irish are conformable to the account we have given of the general creed of the Celtic nations respecting elves. If the Irish elves are anywise distinguished from those of Britain, it seems to be by their disposition to divide into factions and fight among themselves — a pugnacity characteristic of the Green Isle. The Welsh fairies, according to John Lewis, barrister-at-law, agree in the same general attributes with those of Ireland and Britain. We must not omit the creed of the Manxmen, since we find, from the ingenious researches of Mr. Waldron, that the Isle of Man, beyond other places in Britain, was a peculiar depository of the fairy traditions, which, on the island being conquered by the Norse, became, in all probability, chequered with those of Scandinavia from a source peculiar and more direct than that by which they reached Scotland or Ireland.

Such as it was, the popular system of the Celts easily received the northern admixture of Drows and Duergar, which gave the belief, perhaps, a darker colouring than originally belonged to the British fairyland. It was from the same source also, in all probability, that additional legends were obtained of a gigantic and malignant female, the Hecate of this mythology, who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under her grim banner. This hag (in all respects the reverse of the Mab or Titania of the Celtic creed) was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject. The great Scottish poet Dunbar has made a spirited description of this Hecate riding at the head of witches and good neighbours (fairies, namely), sorceresses and elves, indifferently, upon the ghostly eve of All–Hallow Mass.26 In Italy we hear of the hags arraying themselves under the orders of Diana (in her triple character of Hecate, doubtless) and Herodias, who were the joint leaders of their choir. But we return to the more simple fairy belief, as entertained by the Celts before they were conquered by the Saxons.

26 See “Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.”

Of these early times we can know little; but it is singular to remark what light the traditions of Scotland throw upon the poetry of the Britons of Cumberland, then called Reged. Merlin Wyllt, or the wild, is mentioned by both; and that renowned wizard, the son of an elf or fairy, with King Arthur, the dubious champion of Britain at that early period, were both said by tradition to have been abstracted by the fairies, and to have vanished without having suffered death, just at the time when it was supposed that the magic of the wizard and the celebrated sword of the monarch, which had done so much to preserve British independence, could no longer avert the impending ruin. It may be conjectured that there was a desire on the part of Arthur or his surviving champions to conceal his having received a mortal wound in the fatal battle of Camlan; and to that we owe the wild and beautiful incident so finely versified by Bishop Percy, in which, in token of his renouncing in future the use of arms, the monarch sends his attendant, sole survivor of the field, to throw his sword Excalibar into the lake hard by. Twice eluding the request, the esquire at last complied, and threw the far-famed weapon into the lonely mere. A hand and arm arose from the water and caught Excalibar by the hilt, flourished it thrice, and then sank into the lake.27 The astonished messenger returned to his master to tell him the marvels he had seen, but he only saw a boat at a distance push from the land, and heard shrieks of females in agony:—

“And whether the king was there or not

He never knew, he never colde

For never since that doleful day

Was British Arthur seen on molde.”

27 See “Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.”

The circumstances attending the disappearance of Merlin would probably be found as imaginative as those of Arthur’s removal, but they cannot be recovered; and what is singular enough, circumstances which originally belonged to the history of this famous bard, said to be the son of the Demon himself, have been transferred to a later poet, and surely one of scarce inferior name, Thomas of Erceldoune. The legend was supposed to be only preserved among the inhabitants of his native valleys, but a copy as old as the reign of Henry VII. has been recovered. The story is interesting and beautifully told, and, as one of the oldest fairy legends, may well be quoted in this place.

Thomas of Erceldoune, in Lauderdale, called the Rhymer, on account of his producing a poetical romance on the subject of Tristrem and Yseult, which is curious as the earliest specimen of English verse known to exist, flourished in the reign of Alexander III. of Scotland. Like other men of talent of the period, Thomas was suspected of magic. He was said also to have the gift of prophecy, which was accounted for in the following peculiar manner, referring entirely to the elfin superstition:— As True Thomas (we give him the epithet by anticipation) lay on Huntly Bank, a place on the descent of the Eildon Hills, which raise their triple crest above the celebrated Monastery of Melrose, he saw a lady so extremely beautiful that he imagined it must be the Virgin Mary herself. Her appointments, however, were rather those of an Amazon or goddess of the woods. Her steed was of the highest beauty and spirit, and at his mane hung thirty silver bells and nine, which made music to the wind as she paced along. Her saddle was of royal bone (ivory), laid over with orfeveriei.e., goldsmith’s work. Her stirrups, her dress, all corresponded with her extreme beauty and the magnificence of her array. The fair huntress had her bow in her hand, and her arrows at her belt. She led three greyhounds in a leash, and three raches, or hounds of scent, followed her closely. She rejected and disclaimed the homage which Thomas desired to pay to her; so that, passing from one extremity to the other, Thomas became as bold as he had at first been humble. The lady warns him that he must become her slave if he should prosecute his suit towards her in the manner he proposes. Before their interview terminates, the appearance of the beautiful lady is changed into that of the most hideous hag in existence. One side is blighted and wasted, as if by palsy; one eye drops from her head; her colour, as clear as the virgin silver, is now of a dun leaden hue. A witch from the spital or almshouse would have been a goddess in comparison to the late beautiful huntress. Hideous as she was, Thomas’s irregular desires had placed him under the control of this hag, and when she bade him take leave of sun, and of the leaf that grew on tree, he felt himself under the necessity of obeying her. A cavern received them, in which, following his frightful guide, he for three days travelled in darkness, sometimes hearing the booming of a distant ocean, sometimes walking through rivers of blood, which crossed their subterranean path. At length they emerged into daylight, in a most beautiful orchard. Thomas, almost fainting for want of food, stretches out his hand towards the goodly fruit which hangs around him, but is forbidden by his conductress, who informs him these are the fatal apples which were the cause of the fall of man. He perceives also that his guide had no sooner entered this mysterious ground, and breathed its magic air, than she was revived in beauty, equipage, and splendour, as fair, or fairer, than he had first seen her on the mountain. She then commands him to lay his head upon her knee, and proceeds to explain to him the character of the country. “Yonder right-hand path,” she says, “conveys the spirits of the blessed to Paradise; yon downward and well-worn way leads sinful souls to the place of everlasting punishment; the third road, by yonder dark brake, conducts to the milder place of pain from which prayer and mass may release offenders. But see you yet a fourth road, sweeping along the plain to yonder splendid castle? Yonder is the road to Elfland, to which we are now bound. The lord of the castle is king of the country, and I am his queen. But, Thomas, I would rather be drawn with wild horses, than he should know what hath passed between you and me. Therefore, when we enter yonder castle, observe strict silence, and answer no question that is asked at you, and I will account for your silence by saying I took your speech when I brought you from middle earth.”

Having thus instructed her lover, they journeyed on to the castle, and entering by the kitchen, found themselves in the midst of such a festive scene as might become the mansion of a great feudal lord or prince. Thirty carcases of deer were lying on the massive kitchen board, under the hands of numerous cooks, who toiled to cut them up and dress them, while the gigantic greyhounds which had taken the spoil lay lapping the blood, and enjoying the sight of the slain game. They came next to the royal hall, where the king received his loving consort without censure or suspicion. Knights and ladies, dancing by threes (reels perhaps), occupied the floor of the hall, and Thomas, the fatigues of his journey from the Eildon hills forgotten, went forward and joined in the revelry. After a period, however, which seemed to him a very short one, the queen spoke with him apart, and bade him prepare to return to his own country. “Now,” said the queen, “how long think you that you have been here?” “Certes, fair lady,” answered Thomas, “not above these seven days.” “You are deceived,” answered the queen, “you have been seven years in this castle; and it is full time you were gone. Know, Thomas, that the fiend of hell will come to this castle to-morrow to demand his tribute, and so handsome a man as you will attract his eye. For all the world would I not suffer you to be betrayed to such a fate; therefore up, and let us be going.” These terrible news reconciled Thomas to his departure from Elfin land, and the queen was not long in placing him upon Huntly bank, where the birds were singing. She took a tender leave of him, and to ensure his reputation, bestowed on him the tongue which could not lie. Thomas in vain objected to this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower. But all his remonstrances were disregarded by the lady, and Thomas the Rhymer, whenever the discourse turned on the future, gained the credit of a prophet whether he would or not; for he could say nothing but what was sure to come to pass. It is plain that had Thomas been a legislator instead of a poet, we have here the story of Numa and Egeria. Thomas remained several years in his own tower near Erceldoune, and enjoyed the fame of his predictions, several of which are current among the country people to this day. At length, as the prophet was entertaining the Earl of March in his dwelling, a cry of astonishment arose in the village, on the appearance of a hart and hind,28 which left the forest and, contrary to their shy nature, came quietly onward, traversing the village towards the dwelling of Thomas. The prophet instantly rose from the board; and, acknowledging the prodigy as the summons of his fate, he accompanied the hart and hind into the forest, and though occasionally seen by individuals to whom he has chosen to show himself, has never again mixed familiarly with mankind.

28 This last circumstance seems imitated from a passage in the “Life of Merlin,” by Jeffrey of Monmouth. See Ellis’s “Ancient Romances,” vol. i. p. 73.

Thomas of Erceldoune, during his retirement, has been supposed, from time to time, to be levying forces to take the field in some crisis of his country’s fate. The story has often been told of a daring horse-jockey having sold a black horse to a man of venerable and antique appearance, who appointed the remarkable hillock upon Eildon hills, called the Lucken-hare, as the place where, at twelve o’clock at night, he should receive the price. He came, his money was paid in ancient coin, and he was invited by his customer to view his residence. The trader in horses followed his guide in the deepest astonishment through several long ranges of stalls, in each of which a horse stood motionless, while an armed warrior lay equally still at the charger’s feet. “All these men,” said the wizard in a whisper, “will awaken at the battle of Sheriffmoor.” At the extremity of this extraordinary depot hung a sword and a horn, which the prophet pointed out to the horse-dealer as containing the means of dissolving the spell. The man in confusion took the horn, and attempted to wind it. The horses instantly started in their stalls, stamped, and shook their bridles, the men arose and clashed their armour, and the mortal, terrified at the tumult he had excited, dropped the horn from his hand. A voice like that of a giant, louder even than the tumult around, pronounced these words:—

“Woe to the coward that ever he was born,

That did not draw the sword before he blew the horn!”

A whirlwind expelled the horse-dealer from the cavern, the entrance to which he could never again find. A moral might be perhaps extracted from the legend — namely, that it is best to be armed against danger before bidding it defiance. But it is a circumstance worth notice, that although this edition of the tale is limited to the year 1715, by the very mention of the Sheriffmoor, yet a similar story appears to have been current during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, which is given by Reginald Scot. The narrative is edifying as peculiarly illustrative of the mode of marring a curious tale in telling it, which was one of the virtues professed by Caius when he hired himself to King Lear. Reginald Scot, incredulous on the subject of witchcraft, seems to have given some weight to the belief of those who thought that the spirits of famous men do, after death, take up some particular habitations near cities, towns, and countries, and act as tutelary and guardian spirits to the places which they loved while in the flesh.

“But more particularly to illustrate this conjecture,” says he, “I could name a person who hath lately appeared thrice since his decease, at least some ghostly being or other that calls itself by the name of such a person who was dead above a hundred years ago, and was in his lifetime accounted as a prophet or predicter by the assistance of sublunary spirits; and now, at his appearance, did also give strange predictions respecting famine and plenty, war and bloodshed, and the end of the world. By the information of the person that had communication with him, the last of his appearances was in the following manner:—“I had been,” said he, “to sell a horse at the next market town, but not attaining my price, as I returned home by the way I met this man, who began to be familiar with me, asking what news, and how affairs moved through the country. I answered as I thought fit; withal, I told him of my horse, whom he began to cheapen, and proceeded with me so far that the price was agreed upon. So he turned back with me, and told me that if I would go along with him I should receive my money. On our way we went, I upon my horse, and he on another milk-white beast After much travel I asked him where he dwelt and what his name was. He told me that his dwelling was a mile off, at a place called Farran, of which place I had never heard, though I knew all the country round about.29 He also told me that he himself was that person of the family of Learmonths30 so much spoken of as a prophet. At which I began to be somewhat fearful, perceiving we were on a road which I never had been on before, which increased my fear and amazement more. Well, on we went till he brought me under ground, I knew not how, into the presence of a beautiful woman, who paid the money without a word speaking. He conducted me out again through a large and long entry, where I saw above six hundred men in armour laid prostrate on the ground as if asleep. At last I found myself in the open field by the help of the moonlight, in the very place where I first met him, and made a shift to get home by three in the morning. But the money I had received was just double of what I esteemed it when the woman paid me, of which at this instant I have several pieces to show, consisting of ninepennies, thirteen pence-halfpennies,” &c.31

29 In this the author is in the same ignorance as his namesake Reginald, though having at least as many opportunities of information.

30 In popular tradition, the name of Thomas the Rhymer was always averred to be Learmonth. though he neither uses it himself, nor is described by his son other than Le Rymour. The Learmonths of Dairsie, in Fife, claimed descent from the prophet.

31 “Discourse of Devils and Spirits appended to the Discovery of Witchcraft,” by Reginald Scot, Esq., book ii. chap. 3, sec. 10.

It is a great pity that this horse-dealer, having specimens of the fairy coin, of a quality more permanent than usual, had not favoured us with an account of an impress so valuable to medalists. It is not the less edifying, as we are deprived of the more picturesque parts of the story, to learn that Thomas’s payment was as faithful as his prophecies. The beautiful lady who bore the purse must have been undoubtedly the Fairy Queen, whose affection, though, like that of his own heroine Yseult, we cannot term it altogether laudable, seems yet to have borne a faithful and firm character.

I have dwelt at some length on the story of Thomas the Rhymer, as the oldest tradition of the kind which has reached us in detail, and as pretending to show the fate of the first Scottish poet, whose existence, and its date, are established both by history and records; and who, if we consider him as writing in the Anglo–Norman language, was certainly one among the earliest of its versifiers. But the legend is still more curious, from its being the first and most distinguished instance of a man alleged to have obtained supernatural knowledge by means of the fairies.

Whence or how this singular community derived their more common popular name, we may say has not as yet been very clearly established. It is the opinion of the learned that the Persian word Peri, expressing an unearthly being, of a species very similar, will afford the best derivation, if we suppose it to have reached Europe through the medium of the Arabians, in whose alphabet the letter P does not exist, so that they pronounce the word Feri instead of Peri. Still there is something uncertain in this etymology. We hesitate to ascribe either to the Persians or the Arabians the distinguishing name of an ideal commonwealth, the notion of which they certainly did not contribute to us. Some are, therefore, tempted to suppose that the elves may have obtained their most frequent name from their being par excellence a fair or comely people, a quality which they affected on all occasions; while the superstition of the Scottish was likely enough to give them a name which might propitiate the vanity for which they deemed the race remarkable; just as, in other instances, they called the fays “men of peace,” “good neighbours,” and by other titles of the like import. It must be owned, at the same time, that the words fay and fairy may have been mere adoptions of the French fee and feerie, though these terms, on the other side of the Channel, have reference to a class of spirits corresponding, not to our fairies, but with the far different Fata of the Italians. But this is a question which we willingly leave for the decision of better etymologists than ourselves.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29