The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Faërie Ointment

It is a common theme of tales of faery that a special ointment is put on the eyes of their babies to enable them to see things that humans can’t see. Sometimes humans get to use the ointment, but if they are found out they are made blind by the faeries.  This theme occurs in stories from many different locations and with some variations, Here’s part of a Shetland tale that contains it:

On another occasion when Kirstan was among the Trows, she had to dress a baby and one of the grey men brought a box of curious ointment with which the child was to be anointed. While doing this Kirstan chanced to put up her hand to her eye and wiped some of the ointment onto it. From that time her sight was so keen that she could see a boat on the ocean twenty miles away and could tell the position and features of every man in it. One day a trowman met her on the hill and says to her
“Ye travel light and brisk for sae auld a wife.”
Never suspecting who he was she replied
“It’s my güde sight that helps me alang.”
“And which eye do ye see best upon, güde wife?” he asked.
Kirstan told him and he instantly put his little finger in the eye and she was blind in it ever after.

(from ‘Marie Kirstan the Midwife’)

Humans called to look after faërie babies sometimes get to use the ointment in this way. It does not always confer sharp-sightedness, as here, but usually gives humans the ability to see faeries, or see into the faërie realm, when others can’t.

The most common reason given for blinding is when humans see ‘invisible’ faeries stealing goods in the market and challenge them, thereby giving themselves away.

The desire to see into the Realm of Faery and so look beyond the edge of this world into the Otherworld, manifests itself in a number of ways. The theme of the magic ointment gained from the faeries themselves is one such. At the edge of what we know, or can know, the Otherworld beckons. Properly attuned, we might catch glimpses of it in the twilight, through the mist, or at special times of year. At other times, there is always the ointment, if you care to risk losing your sight altogether.


The Fairy Widower at the Crossroads

Jenny’s family were poor, and her cloak was tattered, and food was scarce, so her mother sent her to seek for a position, so she might earn her keep, and perhaps send some money home. So off she went. After walking a while she rested at a crossroads, pulling at some fern leaves that grew there.

Suddenly there was a man standing before her who asked her what she wanted. So she told him.

“That’s right Jane”, he said “and I’m here to offer you what you seek.”

Jenny started. No-one but her mother ever called her Jane, and she had never seen this man before.  But he said

“I’ve watched you looking at yourself in the dewpond from the other side.”

Then, pointing to some petals of violets in her hair, “and I’ve watched you help yourself to these violets of mine to twine in your tresses.”

Jenny didn’t know what to say, but the man continued, “Will you come to my house and look after my young child?”

She thought this was what she was seeking, so she said

“Yes, when should I come?”

“At once”, he replied.

She agreed then to go with him.

“Not yet”, he says, “You must swear my oath.”

Jenny looked frightened.

“Don’t worry”, he says, “you must kiss this fern leaf and say ‘For a-year-and-a-day I promise to stay’.”

So she kissed the fern leaf and said

For a-year-and-a-day
I promise to stay

and at that the man led her away.

They walked for miles until Jenny asked to stop and began to weep for tiredness.

“There are no tears of sorrow in my world”, the man said, and he took a fern leaf and drew it across her eyes. As he did so the tears disappeared and she found herself in another world where flowers glittered like gemstones in clear sunlight.

The man himself was transformed too and appeared to shine with translucent radiance as he led her through a forest to a clearing containing a large structure that might have been formed from trees, or from stone, or from a trick of the light. She could not decide. But here she was to spend a-year-and-a-day looking after a young child.

It seemed sometimes to Jenny that the time there was forever, as she could imagine no other time, and she came to love the child she cared for, and her every need was met.

But it also seemed that the year-and-a-day passed in no more than seconds when, at the end of it, she found herself suddenly back at the crossroads which appeared unchanged, except that the ferns had gone and instead some thistles grew there.

Around Jenny’s shoulders was a new cloak which always kept her warm when she was cold, and dry when she as wet, and snug when she wrapped it around herself to sleep. But it never became soiled or ragged or looked anything but new. And the violets in her hair were as pretty as her face and so it was not long before a farmer’s son found her and wed her, and she had her own children to care for.


The Gudeman o' Siggie Taft

It was said that the trows had taken against the people of Siggie Taft. Here's why:

There was once a member of this family riding his grey mare and driving a red deer along the misty slopes of Stakkaberg, which was noted as a place of great danger. But this man feared nothing. As he rode along he heard a voice out of the raging torrent:

Du 'at rides de grey and rins de red
Tell Tona Tivla 'at Fona Fivla
Is faan i' de Velyna Vatjna
The words stayed with him and, arriving home, and putting his horse in the stable, he repeated them out loud. At once an 'uncanny woman' leaped out of the door of the adjoining byre and away with her. As she went he heard her saying the words

O care and dole -
Dats my bairn has fallen
In the Churning Water
When he went into the byre he found a milking pan of strange design beneath the cow which the woman had left behind her. This was kept in the house for many generations and brought good luck to the household. But each night it had to be put, with a special prayer, into the cauldron pot that hung on a ringed chain by the Hearth.

One night this was not done, and it was left out.In the morning it had disappeared. Ever since the trows have taken against the people of Siggie Taft and their luck has ended.

  Adapted from (dialect modified)  Shetland Folk Book II



In The Colloquy with the Ancients, as St. Patrick and Caoilte are talking with one another, a lone woman robed in mantle of green, a smock of soft silk being next her skin, and on her forehead a glittering plate of yellow gold, came to them; and when Patrick asked from whence she came, she replied: “Out of uaimh Chruachna, or ‘the cave of Cruachan’.”

Caoilte then asked: “Woman, my soul, who art thou?” 

“I am Scothniamh or ‘Flower-lustre’, daughter of the Daghda's son Bodhb derg.”
Caoilte proceeded: “And what brought thee here?”

 “To require of thee my marriage-gift, because once upon a time thou promised me such.”
And as they spoke Patrick broke in with: “It is a wonder to us how we see you two: the girl young and invested with all comeliness; but thou Caoilte, a withered ancient, bent in the back and dingily grown grey.”

 “Which is no wonder at all,” said Caoilte, “for no people of one generation or of one time are we: she is of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are unfading and whose duration is perennial I am of the sons of Milesius, that are perishable and fade away.”

 The exact distinction is between Caoilte, a withered old ancient - in most ways to be regarded as a ghost called up that Patrick may question him about the past history of Ireland - and a fairy-woman who is one of the Sidhe or Tuatha Dé Danann.


The Brown Man of the Muirs

Two friends went hunting on the moors for wildfowl. One of them strayed into some woodland where he had seen some birds descending. He thought he saw a movement in the distance, certainly not a bird but possibly a deer, and he walked towards it through the trees. Pausing at the bank of a stream, he saw a figure emerge from the trees on the other side of the stream. A man it was, and yet like a wild animal. He seemed to be composed of the very things of the woodland itself, of moss and bark and leaf-mould.  He was not so much seen as experienced by other senses than sight, sound and smell, although all of these senses were stimulated by him. So his voice, when he spoke, was harsh and strong:

“What do yer mean by coming here after the animals I have care of?”

His voice was terrible and yet it was enticing.

”Come over here and I’ll tell yer how to behave in my woodland.”

It was as if the hunter had no choice but to put down his gun and cross the stream. Just then he heard his friend’s voice behind him and turned around. When he looked back the figure across the stream could not be seen.

“Did you see that?” he asked. But his friend had seen nothing. When he told him what had happened, his friend was fearful.

“Oh, it’s lucky I came, if you’d crossed the stream he would have torn you apart! It’s only that water that saved you. We’d better go and forget hunting for today.”

But as they were leaving a bird flew up from the undergrowth. The hunter lifted his gun and fired, bringing down the bird. But as he did so his arm froze and the chill never left it. It was said that he was cursed by the ‘Brown Man of the Muirs’ and he pined away and died soon after.

Scottish Borders/Northumberland.  Passed on by letter to Walter Scott. 
Said to have happened in 1641.