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


The Cunning Man's Wife

So when the Cunning man wanted a wife, what did he do? White Mary had faded from public view and it was the Cunning Man that people came to consult so he was now well known. Few were the women who would come to live in his cottage in the Haunted Wood. But there was one with a bit of independence of mind who had caught his eye, and he thought he had caught hers. So he went to her , and he wooed her, and in due time she came home with him as his wife. 

 But that was just the start if it. As they passed Mary’s cottage he pointed out the nosegay of herbs Mary had left for her. But they were green and grey for the most part and she paid little heed of them. That was her first mistake. When they entered the cottage the spaniel, who could be either there or not there, as was needed, was not there, as she had no need or heed of her. That was her second mistake. 

 ‘Oh well’, thought her husband, ‘She’ll learn’. A few days later, when she had settled in, he had to go out for the day and would not be back until late that night. Before he went he warned her not to move or change anything around the cottage. Later that morning she went out to the well for water. Just beyond the well an ash tree’s branches hung down and were bedecked with seven bright ribbons. She took two for her hair. The well itself was difficult to get to because of the stones arranged around it. So she moved them. 

 During the afternoon she started to get a feeling that she was being watched, but she ignored it. Then as evening drew a shade across the forest, she began to hear noises. She looked out through the front door and realised that the ash tree was right up against the house. How had that happened? Then she saw that one of the branches was moving towards her. She screamed and retreated into the cottage. Where could she get help? This was her only thought. And at that thought the spaniel suddenly appeared beside her. The end of a branch pushed open a window and the spaniel jumped snarling up and through the window. There was a terrible commotion outside for a while, then it subsided. She went to the window for a look and saw that the tree was gone but the spaniel was now at the well where the green head of Nicky Nye had appeared. Fear gripped her and she shrank back. 

 But then she heard a soft voice singing and she peeped out again through the window. A woman with a face like moonlight was walking around the well and putting the stones back in their places as she sang. By the time the Cunning Man returned all was quiet. Nicky had gone back into the well and the spaniel was sitting at his wife’s side having her ears scratched. The next morning he went out to survey the damage. The well was as it had been and Mary must have come back at first light as fresh herbs had been strewn all around. But the ash tree was gone save for a gnawn branch on the ground. He took the branch away later and came back with a sapling ash to put in the place of the one that had gone. Then Mary came with new ribbons and another nosegay which his wife took with thanks and hung over the window in their bedroom. 

 For the most part she got over that night and now the spaniel was at her side most of the time. But the thing she didn't get over was her fear of Nicky Nye and because he knew her fear he had power over her. He never again appeared at the well but she could feel his presence when she went down to the river so she always kept away from the water. 

 A few years passed and a young child was growing up in the cottage. One day he toddled down to the river as they walking towards the bridge. He looked into the water and saw Nicky looking back. Then a green arm emerged and began to encircle him and the green teeth of Nicky Nye protruded from his open mouth. The mother’s fear was tested but she found new strength and running towards the child she pulled him back, hissing at the creature. The spaniel was there too and Nicky retreated with the spaniel in pursuit. He kept away after that, but whether it was because of the spaniel or the fact that the wife had won over her fear, or that she was by now part of the magical configuration of the place, is hard to say. But so it was.


Living in the Haunted Forest

How did the cunning man live safely in the the haunted forest?

His spaniel has been mentioned, and the tale says that it was a spayed bitch. Why?

John Aubrey in his The Remaines of Gentilism (1686-87) relates the following:

I believe all over England, a spaied bitch is accounted wholesome in a House; that is to say, they have a strong beliefe that it keeps away evill sprits from haunting of a House ; e.g. amongst many other instances, at Cranborn in Dorset about 1686, a house was haunted, and two Tenants successively went away (left the house) for that reason: a third came and brought his spaid bitch, and was never troubled.

Why should a spayed bitch have magical properties? Perhaps the lack of procreative ability concentrated the energies on psychic matters? This is a mystery that remains to be explained.

It is said, in another tale, that the cunning man had the help of his aunt, White Mary, in arranging things at his cottage: placing stones in a particular configuration, hanging ribbons in a special way on the ash tree, constructing the well surround in a way that kept the flow of sweet water running, and strewing herbs regularly to keep the surroundings wholesome.

These magical defences did not banish the spirits of the forest, but allowed the cunning man to live safely alongside them, to interact with them, and to live in harmony with the denizens of the forest. Bringing anything new into these arrangements might upset the equilibrium. This happened when the cunning man brought home a new wife. A story to be told another time.


The Cunning Man of the Haunted Forest

Nicky Nicky Nye
He pulls you down
Underneath the water
To drown, drown, die.

Nicky was a water spirit of the malicious kind. He was notorious for grabbing children from the river bank and dragging them in. He had green teeth, green hair and green eyes. Like waterweed. But he could be as clear and transparent as the running waters when he wanted to be. In the past he had been feared by children and their mothers all along the river. But these days he tends to stay in the haunted wood, and that is what this story is about.

Few lived in the wood, or even dared to venture into it, especially after dark. Only two people lived right in the heart of the wood. One was an old wise woman. The other was her nephew, later known – after her time – as the Cunning Man of the Wood. They lived about a mile apart. He made his reputation while still a young man. But even before this folks marveled at the fact that he lived in a cottage right on Nicky’s river. But they knew his aunt and put it down to her magic: the placing of stones, the speaking of charms and the spaniel bitch, which she had given him as a puppy, and which had powers no doubt like those of the one who was said by those with a gossip’s tongue to be the old woman’s familiar.

One day a farmer from the forest edge came to the Wise Woman to ask her advice as his cows were dry and he suspected dark magic. She nodded and told him to go to her nephew who would know what to do. The farmer hesitated, then took the path to the river. He told his tale to the young man, who thought a while then turned aside and said, as if to the empty air,

“what thinks?”

As if from nowhere the spaniel was at his side with eager eyes.

“Yes, we’ll come”, he said. “At midnight”.

The farmer did not want to wait to accompany them and set off home before it was dark. They came in the gloom of the night and the spaniel sat in the meadow among the cows. A large hare comes lopping across the field and begins drinking from the udder of one of the cows. The spaniel sprang, the hare leaped, and away with them. The spaniel nipped at the hare’s heels and was all the time forcing the direction of the chase towards the river. As they arrive the spaniel barks and Nicky emerges and grabs the hare. Then a screech as the witch comes out of the hare form and struggles to get out of Nicky’s clutches. But she failed.

After that, the Wise Woman’s cottage began to fade a little, so that people sort of forgot it was there. But they know about her nephew and his spaniel. And about him there are many tales to tell of his life in the haunted wood. And maybe, soon, one or another of them will be told here if you care to call in to find out.


The Cailleach

The following - by Tony Kelly - is from 

And when the Goddess is old and haggard?  What of November when her hair is grey, when her bones are bare and the leaves are falling grey and sodden about her?  Who will love her then?  Old Hag of the hollow breasts and the withered arms, of the eyes that look only inward, of the empty hand, of the grasping claws that would take all, for only all will sate her...  We could not leave her if we would, and would not if we could, for as the tongue forever returns to the aching tooth and grief to the very source of pain, the plight of a Goddess bereft of her all is a pain we have no will to put aside.  She is fear, horror, abject despair and the withering of all hope; she is the pit out of which all that is lovely has fled and out of which meaning itself was dug.

The floor of our temple is the rolling plain, the pillars are the greenwood trees and our roof is the open sky.  Come Sun, come Moon, come wind and rain, come hail and sleet or snow, there in the heat of the day or there in the eye of the blizzard, are we and the gods.  Am I cold?  I am the cold.  Is the rain pouring down?  I am the rain.  I am the rush of the river, the noise of the storm, the heat of the sunshine, the lust of the May.  And the priestess of Mab the Beautiful, dancing there with the girdle of hawthorn leaves...  Will I remember her when she is old and the leaves are falling and she bears the elder wand and her girdle is of bones all whitened on the rain-lashed hills?  Yes, I'll remember, for she is closer than breath and the dance must go on and on.


Meditation for the Waning Moon

Light fades. It ebbs away under the dim shade of the forest trees. Darkness falls after the last blue glimmer dissolves into the stream, which carries it away. There is a hush, in spite of the rush of water through the stones of the narrow gorge. The watcher by the stones has taken a position with a view through the opening in the trees where the Moon will rise. She is waning and some time will pass after the setting of the Sun before she is visible. The sky is a deep blue-black where stars glitter, the brightness of some of them tracing familiar patterns: Orion, The Plough, The Giant's Chair. The white mist of the Milky Way recedes behind the visible stars and re-appears as a path for the watcher to walk by. When the left-handed crescent rises she appears enamelled silver-white against the sable of the sky.

The way is clear. The Otherworld wraps itself around him. He knows not where he goes, but his path stretches away in the path of the Waning Moon.

Knowing she will haunt the sky until long after the Dawn pales and herself fade in the morning light.

Somewhere between light and dark, between moonlight and sunlight, he sees a vision of a far-off land and knows that he lives there for a fleeting moment of time which is forever.

Returning, he sees the Moon reflected in the stream. The night is cold but only now is he aware of it. He touches the chill waters with his fingertips, then anoints his forehead. All is still. He blesses the night as the night has blessed him.


Harbinger of Winter

But the night is Halloween,
Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride
(Tam Lin)

Where do they ride?
Is it to the land of the Dead?
As the trees of the land respond to the longer nights with a glow of autumn gold before casting their leaves to the Earth, the life of the land fades and the faërie folk appear to fade too. In their realm they are as bright as a summer day. In ours they are shades dwelling in the long shadows cast by the low sunlight and bare trees. Skeletal as a leaf with only the sap veins remaining.

So they ride to the land of the Dead, becoming shadows of what they were in our world.
But not in their own.

Then - shaped out of grey mist - comes the Grey Mare, on a steed for the Hag of the Night.


Dreaming the Land

It is said that the land of Faery is as near as breath.
So it is. And as far away as a land beyond the clouds or deep underground. That is true too. Faërie logic allows for this contradiction. The old stories of the Otherworld folk living in mounds and moving between the worlds capture this nearness while at the same time conceding that it is an invisible realm for those going about their daily business with eyes focused on the main chance.

So it is the slant look, the averted gaze, the dreaming eye that might catch a glimpse through the veil of enchantment that casts a glamour over the Otherworld. Yet to go there is not easy. Stories tell of journeys through darkness, through water and through suspended time to get there. What sort of journeys are these? They too are the journeys of dream, of trance, of stillness in a world of shifting time and space.

Deep within the living world of Nature the dream goes on, just as a dream does in the world of sleep. But this is a waking dream with a continuous existence half a glance away. Dream the land and the land will dream you; sidestep the path and a new path opens before you. To glimpse these ways into dream is an occasional privilege granted to those who care to attune their senses and be still and aware. This dream world is not insubstantial and fleeting; it is deep in its dimensions and time is everlasting. But it often comes unexpectedly and as soon fades into a barely perceived memory. The trick is to train the mind to see though the veil at will. To dream the land by charms, by spells, or by developing the clear sight conferred in the tales of faërie by the application of a special lotion and taken away by the casting into the eyes of a special dust causing blindness in the faërie realm and often, also, in the common world too. This suggests danger. Truly the Realm of Faery is a perilous realm, not to be encountered lightly.



I know a place
Where oak trees grow
And silver-white birches too
It's very still
And very wet
And the trees are very tall.

All the leaves are green
If you go there now
And the ferns are greener still
If you go at dusk
There are owls calling
With a song of twilight shrill

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


White Bryony

Bryonia dioica

"The White Bryony, whose leaf is not unlike that of the grape, has a magical reputation, and the cottage folk believe its root to be a powerful ingredient in love potions, and also poisonous. They identify it with the Mandrake. If growing in, or close to, a churchyard, its virtues are increased, for though, becoming fainter as they lengthen, the shadows of the old superstitions linger still."

So wrote the Victorian writer on country life Richard Jefferies. Mandrake, which has a root in the shape of a man, had (on Biblical authority) the reputation of being able to get women pregnant. But it was an exotic item so in Britain the herbalists used Bryony instead. The roots grow to some size and are sometimes forked when they can resemble a small baby.

Eirin Gwion (Gwion's Plums) was the name in Wales, after the  miraculous child who tasted some drops from the cauldron of Cerridwen and so was inspired. Cerridwen chased him in the classic pursuit by a witch where the person chased changes shape and the witch then changes too. Eventually Gwion hid as a grain of wheat but Cerridwen became a chicken and ate him. She was then pregnant with him but when he was born abandoned him on a river for him to be found and become the legendary poet Taliesin.

This is a particularly imaginative link between the plant and childbirth. It does more than link it to stories about mandrakes but carries the mythology of the plant through to a specific birth of a legendary character. The 'plums' or berries of the plant are apparently very bitter, which is just a well as they are also poisonous in spite of being used in some herbal remedies. Perhaps these berries were one of the ingredients of the magic brew that Cerridwen was preparing when she employed Gwion to to stir the cauldron.



Vervain, from time immemorial, has been the floral symbol of enchantment. In ancient times it was much in request for all kinds of divinations and incantation. Virgil alludes to it as one of the charms used by an enchantress:
Bring running water, bind those altars round
With fillets and with vervain strew the ground (*)

Vervain is not a showy flower and could be easily missed among the grasses and the flowers growing, as it often does, by roadsides or on waste ground. This always seems to have been the case. An anonymous verse from around the year 1400 says that it may be found “by way or gate” and Gerarde’s Herball(1597) refers to it as growing “in untilled places neere unto hedges, high waies and commonly by ditches”. A Garden Dictionary of 1741 lists it as a medicinal plant gathered in the wild but “rarely cultivated in gardens”.

But as the quotation (from T F T Dyer*) above indicates, it has deep magical associations. Pliny associated it with the Gaulish druids and the word verbenae in Latin indicates boughs used in religious ceremonies, but Pliny also had a particular plant – verbena – in mind, which has since been taken to be vervain (Verbena officinalis). It was recognised in Anglo-Saxon herbalism as capable of driving away disease and also as a herb used by sorcerers. Gerarde had his reservations, and suggested that its widespread fame had evil origins: “The divell did reveale it as a secret and divine medecine”. In spite of this it continued to be used well into the 18th century. The Welsh herbal lore of the Physicians of Myddfai advised that the herb be gathered “in the name of God” and that no heed should be paid “to those who say it should be gathered in the name of the devil”. They recommended it to prevent dreams and to counter the effects of Scrophula. Perhaps Gerarde’s doubts about the plant simply reflect its magical uses

Here, to end, is a verse by the 18th century poet William Mason:
Lift your boughs of vervain blue
Dipt in cold September dew
And dash the moisture, chaste and clear,
O’er the ground, and through the air.
Now the place is purged and pure.

T F T Dyer The Folk Lore of Plants(1878)
David Hoffman Welsh Herbal Medicine (1960)
Geoffrey Grigson The Englishman’s Flora (1958)
J Grattan and C Singer Anglo-Saxon Medicine (1952)



Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)

The first leet night, quhan the new moon set,
Quhan all was douffe and mirk,
We saddled our naigis wi' the moon-fern leif,
And rode fra Kilmerrin kirk.
Some horses were of the brume-cow framit,
And some of the greine bay tree;
But mine was made of ane humloke schaw,
And a stour stallion was he.

So James Hogg from his poem in Scots dialect The Witch of Fife. Hogg was a shepherd who was 'discovered' by Walter Scott when he was collecting folklore and ballads in the eighteenth century. Hogg often used the folkore he was steeped in as material for poetry, as here. In the dark of the night when the new moon has set they saddle horses with moon fern leaf. The horses are themselves transformed from cows, trees and a hemlock stalk. Riding on moonfern is a way of journeying  to Faery. The fern itself was seen as a 'key' to the Otherworld and so could be used to transport you there on whatever conveyance might be available.


John Stewart and the Selkie


Those selkie girls, they like to climb
Up onto the rocks to take the air
Peel off their seal skins and recline
As human girls in the warmth of the sun;
But if a human from from the land comes near
They’re seals again and off they swim.

John Stewart knew that this was so,
Had watched them from his boat out in the bay
But never could get close enough before they’d go.

One day he hid himself among the heather
Above the rocks washed by the highest tides
Where he knew the selkie girls would gather.

Spreading their skins upon the rocks above
They sat and sunned themselves above the spray
Or cooled themselves in pools the selkies love.


He waited until they slid into the water
Then crept out to take the skin  of one he’d noticed
Above the others for her grace and beauty
Knowing that if he had her skin he’d also have her.

When he was seen the girls came out and scrambled
Onto the rocks to put their seal skins on
And swim back out into deeper waters.
But one remained, frantic, for the skin she’d shed,

Which he had folded away secretly.
He said to her ‘Come home with me
To be my wife and I will love you
For now you cannot go back to the sea’.

For nine years she lived with him
And bore him two girls and a boy
But gazing over the waves from the rocky shore
Her thoughts strayed often to her selkie kin.


One day she looked up and saw a leak
Dripping through the thatch of their cottage
And climbed up into the roofspace to check.

Then she saw it, lined in the thatch,
The skin she had shed nine years before,
Dry and wrinkled now, but intact.

Her husband was away at sea and she
Felt the swell of the waves, and the taste
Of the the tear on her cheek was salty.

So she took the skin and called to her children,
For the last time, her heart breaking,
Fed them, bade them be good, and kissed them

Went to the beach and put on the skin,
Felt a shiver as the chill waves touched it
And swam, as a seal, back to the ocean.



It seemed so long ago, but also no more than a moment, since that day she passed through. It is like that for gods. Time is both Eternity and instantaneous; Space is both Infinity and as close as breath. But things had been ebbing away then. That fading that is one of the waves of her being, one of the drifts of her thought: that time when the Grey Mare was led into the stable. When she wore a dark shroud ….. Wasn’t that someone else?

So long ago compared to now. Apple blossom gleams in the morning sunshine. A drifting mist of early dawn clears slowly as the day warms. As it clears, she rides her white steed through the gate of dawn.

In a forest – its floor a mist of bluebells – her birds stir. Their song covers the last echoes of winter, brings the burgeoning of spring and the promise of summer.

As she rides she listens. She hears the song of the birds even as she calls upon them to sing. The awakening land responds as her senses sharpen to the breeze, the sun, the green leaves of her flowering trees. Who does she seek? What else does she listen for?

The songs her people sing for her, as she rides for them.

Rigantona of the days before,
Rhiannon of the days that come after,
Great Queen, your people do you homage
As you come again amongst us and your land awakens.


Rigantona, we strew rose petals about your altar
For your coming from the Otherworld.


Ursilla and the Selkie

Ursilla was not happily married. And what she could not get from her husband, she sought elsewhere. No other man on the island would do. So she looked to the Selkie folk.

She went early one morning, to sit on a rock at the high-tide mark, and when the tide was washing against the rock, she shed seven tears and let them fall into the sea. This is what you must do if you wish to speak with the Selkie folk. Then, out of the grey light of the dawn over the sea, she saw the Selkie coming towards her through the waves. She spoke to him of her desire, her tongue freed by his unearthly beauty and his own direct manner.

He said he would visit her at the Seventh Stream of the spring tide, and he would come in human form. She came at the appointed time and he was there on the rocks before her with the waves washing at his heels. She went with him under the cliffs, hand in hand, her cold, hard beauty softening as they went and he gazed upon her with his eyes like wells of clear spring water.

It is said that, later, she had a child with webbed feet, though this is not confirmed. Nothing ever is where the Selkie folk are concerned. Did Ursilla walk, hand in hand, with a Selkie in human form? Did a seal man come from the sea to her? Certainly she sat on that rock and shed those tears. Certainly a seal’s head bobbed out of the water as she did so. But there the certainty ends. For that is how it is with the Selkie folk.

(A version of a folk tale from Orkney.)



A faint rainbow that is there - and not there
A faërie thing fading
Out of the visible air.


A Dream

This from the Archive of the Pagan Movement Ethos Group by Tony Kelly

The wood was vast and there was no sky overhead. The trees were immensely tall and very old, and belonged to the forest. They were separate trees and communicated as trees do, but they were also part of the pulse of the woodland. There was something intense about them, not human, very, very old, and the moisture on them and the tree mosses belonged to the forest. It would be perilous to interfere with them, yet it would be sacrilegious too. You couldn't help loving them because they were magic, but loving them because they were trees and because they belonged to the forest.

The light was darkened as it is in the greenwood and there were paths. But it was very quiet, and peaceful, and strangely menacing, and lovable. It wasn't the sort of place you'd want to be alone in. And it wasn't the sort of place you'd want to leave. It's the sort of place that, if Brirn had appeared with horns and cloven feet and the magic pipes, you wouldn't be too surprised.

And there was something alluring, and bewitching, and magic about it. The trees and everything growing in the greenwood was alive and it was aware, but it wasn't human awareness. It was the diffused mind of the woodland, as much one tree as another, and as much all of them, but not divided. A presence. Thinking. Brooding. Aware of the people in its midst. It was vast, but deep and quiet, immensely powerful, but passive. It was green thinks, and it belonged to all that grows in the greenwood, and all the plants that come from her womb. And green thinks are not like red thinks. They're old, and they were old when red thinks were young. Old memories, an aching sadness, and separation, but so long ago. But here in the greenwood, we were in the presence of green thinks, in its own land, on sacred ground, and the faerie mind was more powerful than the human, beckoning, but menacing, threatening, but loving.

So old, so very long ago.....

Illustration of BRIRN from The Waxing Moon published by The Pagan Movement in 1977


Where the Green Things Are

There is a lichen – Lobaria pulmonaria – also known as ‘Tree Lungwort’ – which lives in the depths of the forest. It needs mature trees to establish itself and damp conditions away from drying winds, so small woodlands are of no use to it. It is rare in Britain because the habitat it needs is also rare. She is a faërie thing. Old, mysterious and of a time that is passing. Yet she lingers in the dark woodland whispering her spells when the moonlight filters down through the trees.

Can such things be found in the town, in a cul-de-sac or in the quiet corner of a park? Perhaps, but she would bid you follow her to where greenthinks are the thoughts that matter. To a place where such a lichen or a rare liverwort that needs the rotting trunks of dead trees to live its life, or other such green things can have their existence. Where water trickles through moss and filmy ferns to a moonlit stream. Moonthinks to the green things;  To the old world which is still ever young; To the realm of Faery.



Some days I see birds like buzzards and herons and I see them for their wildlife interest, as fellow creatures inhabiting the Earth . But sometimes they take on a greater significance. Birds and other creatures have also been seen as omens, spirit guides, otherworld messengers who speak to humans indirectly by their actions. Today a buzzard dipped as it flew across my path, then turned and flew back doing the same thing. I stopped and watched it as it perched on a tree looking back at me. What was its message? I didn't know, but I felt sure that I had to acknowledge the communication. Later, coming back along the same path, the buzzard again flew across, banking to one side in front of me before winging across a field to some nearby woodland.

I remember once hearing the phrase "there is another world but it is this one" and such experiences reinforce the sense of an Otherworld immanent in Nature all around us.

But how to hear the buzzard's message, go where the heron beckons, acknowledge the owl's call, find the gateway to the Otherworld from the winding path through the wood, or where the water trickles down a mossy bank? I don't know. But I do know that I have been there, unexpectedly, slipping through  almost unconsciously with a sideways step off the path. But if you will it too strongly the path avoids the place and you come to the edge of the wood all too soon before the sideways step can be taken.


The Court of Faery in March

Such cold clear days in the morning
Such sunny afternoons
and at night such stars.

So it goes so far this March. The wand of Winter is still held over the land. The Faery Court is held between bare sticks of last year's growth, pale stems of dry herbs, withered flowers. Here and there a celandine shows yellow, and, in the garden, crocuses join the snowdrops as harbingers of Spring. As for the Faery Court, held in such evanescence of growth, they remain invisible to human eyes and even to the most sensitive of souls. But we yearn for them just as they reach out to the green that is to come. Then they may be glimpsed among the ferns. For now they are a  green echo in a brown and straw-bleached land.

As the weather changes (as it does constantly in this Isle of Faery):

Such misty drifting on the slopes of morning
Such cloudy skies as the day goes on
and at night the skies are a canopy through which the distant stars are barely glimpsed.

My love for the land in all its moods is absolute. Nothing would I hold back from dedication to Nature in all her moods come rain or shine.

But now, in this time of transition,  I yearn for the return of the Queen of Faery and all her crew.


Starry Nights and Liminal Days

Corkscrew Hazel in my garden

My garden is a place where many plants grow in Summer.  In Winter there are few.  But while the nights are longer than the days, I am drawn there by the domain of night to look at the sky.  The patch I can see  has as its central feature the constellation of Orion.  I know this well.  There on any clear night I can see the three stars of the Hunter's belt with Betelgeuse above and Rigel below.  Further down from the belt gleams Sirius just above the trees.  To the right of Betelgeuse is Aldebaran's red eye, to the left Procyon and further up Castor and Pollux.  Right above my head if I look straight up is Capella, high and bright.  And if I swivel round I can see the Giant's Chair, Cassiopeia.  Beyond that is the Plough, though I would have to walk to the end of the garden and then turn round to see it over the house.  On really clear nights, when the Moon is hiding her face, Capella gleams in the mist of the Milky Way.  But a faint mist it is, and I have to go away from the village to see it in all its glory.  This Winter, when all the land is empty and the Spring seems long in coming, look up at the wonders of the skies and think on the mysteries of the deep places beyond.

   On the common where the grass lies in a damp mat and the brambles lie leafless on the sodden mounds, there is a fine bed of Winter Heliotrope newly in flower; the lilac flowers rising in spikes from the large heart-shaped leaves which remained green and fresh through the early frosts of Winter are now spread out luxuriantly beneath the blooms as if the Sun were at his zenith and not recently risen from the cauldron of the Winter Solstice.

    Soon we will be looking for mild weather to bring on the early flowers of Spring.  In hollows sheltered from the wind, and where the sunlight is caught, celandines and dandelions will open briefly to the middle day.  Catkins already hang from hazels, long and yellow.  Hard Ferns and Male Ferns still grow green on mossy banks.  The stems of last year's Wood Sage stand with leaves still green below the husks of their tiny flowers.  On the far side of the lake the purple buds of alders stain the foreground with a mist of purple-grey.  Beyond the bare hillside is rust-brown with dead bracken, the sky grey with cloud.

But Spring waits, advancing on mild days, biding the time during cold nights, as we move towards the time when the days will be of equal length with the nights. A liminal time, when the borders of Winter  begin to fade, though like all such borders, still immanent in their fading.


Thomas of Ercildoune

In a previous entry I discussed The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer 
which tells how he was taken to Faëry for seven years. After his return to Ercildoune, where he lived in a castle, Thomas made many songs and ballads and pronounced in rhyme many prophecies. It is said that when Thomas was an old man the Fairy Queen returned for him. One day, as he stood chatting with knights and ladies, she rode from the river-side and called: "True Thomas, your time has come."
Thomas cried to his friends: "Farewell, all of you, I shall return no more." Then he mounted the milk-white steed behind the Fairy Queen, and galloped across the ford. It is said that Thomas still dwells in Fairyland, but that sometimes he goes about invisible. 

Thomas has been seen, folks have told, riding out of a fairy dwelling below Eildon Hills, from another fairy dwelling below Dumbuck Hill, near Dumbarton, and from a third fairy dwelling below the boat-shaped mound of Tom-na-hurich at Inverness.
Another story about Thomas is told at Inverness. Two fiddlers, named Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming, natives of Strathspey, who lived over three hundred years ago, once visited Inverness during the Christmas season. They hoped to earn money by their music, and as soon as they arrived in the town began to show their skill in the streets. Although they had great fame as fiddlers in Strathspey, they found that the townspeople took little notice of them. When night fell, they had not collected enough money to buy food for supper and to pay for a night's lodging. They stopped playing and went, with their fiddles under their right arms, towards the wooden bridge that then crossed the River Ness.

Just as they were about to walk over the bridge they saw a little old man coming towards them in the dusk. His beard was very long and very white, but although his back was bent his step was easy and light. He stopped in front of the fiddlers, and, much to their surprise, hailed them by their names saying: "How fares it with you, my merry fiddlers?"
"Badly, badly!" answered Grant.
"Very badly indeed!" Cumming said.
"Come with me," said the old man. "I have need of fiddlers to-night, and will reward you well. A great ball is to be held in my castle, and there are no musicians."
Grant and Cumming were glad to get the chance of earning money by playing their fiddles and said they would go. "Then follow me and make haste," said the old man. The fiddlers followed him across the wooden bridge and across the darkening moor beyond. He walked with rapid strides, and sometimes the fiddlers had to break into a run to keep up with him. Now and again that strange, nimble old man would turn round and cry: "Are you coming, my merry fiddlers?"

In time they reached the big boat-shaped mound called Tom-na-hurich, and the old man began to climb it. The fiddlers followed at a short distance. Then he stopped suddenly and stamped the ground three times with his right foot. A door opened and a bright light streamed forth.
"Here is my castle, Cumming; here is my castle, Grant," exclaimed the old man, who was no other than Thomas the Rhymer. "Come within and make merry."
The fiddlers paused for a moment at the open door, but Thomas the Rhymer drew from his belt a purse of gold and made it jingle. "This purse holds your wages," he told them. "First you will get your share of the feast, then you will give us fine music."

As the fiddlers were as hungry as they were poor, they could not resist the offer made to them, and entered the fairy castle. As soon as they entered, the door was shut behind them. 
They found themselves in a great hall, which was filled with brilliant light. Tables were spread with all kinds of food, and guests sat round them eating and chatting and laughing merrily.

Thomas led the fiddlers to a side table, and two graceful maidens clad in green came forward with dishes of food and bottles of wine, and said: "Eat and drink to your hearts' content, Farquhar Grant and Thomas Cumming--Farquhar o'Feshie and Thomas o' Tom-an-Torran. You are welcome here to-night."
The fiddlers wondered greatly that the maidens knew not only their personal names but even the names of their homes. They began to eat, and, no matter how much they ate, the food on the table did not seem to grow less. They poured out wine, but they could not empty the bottles.
Said Cumming: "This is a feast indeed."
Said Grant: "There was never such a feast in Strathspey."

When the feast was ended the fiddlers were led to the ballroom, and there they began to play merry music for the gayest and brightest and happiest dancers they ever saw before. They played reels and jigs and strathspeys, and yet never grew weary. The dancers praised their music, and fair girls brought them fruit and wine at the end of each dance. If the guests were happy, the musicians were happier still, and they were sorry to find at length that the ball was coming to an end. How long it had lasted they could not tell. When the dancers began to go away they were still unwearied and willing to go on playing.

Thomas the Rhymer entered the ballroom, and spoke to the fiddlers, saying: "You have done well, my merry men. I will lead you to the door, and pay you for your fine music." The fiddlers were sorry to go away. At the door Thomas the Rhymer divided the purse of gold between them, and asked: "Are you satisfied?"
"Satisfied!" Cumming repeated. "Oh, yes, for you and your guests have been very kind!"
"We should gladly come back again," Grant said.

When they had left the castle the fiddlers found that it was bright day. The sun shone from an unclouded sky, and the air was warm. As they walked on they were surprised to see fields of ripe corn, which was a strange sight at the Christmas season. Then they came to the riverside, and found instead of a wooden bridge a new stone bridge with seven arches.
"This stone bridge was not here last night," Cumming said.
"Not that I saw," said Grant.

They crossed the bridge but no sooner than they did so than the two fiddlers crumbled into dust.

Such is the story of the two fiddlers who spent a hundred years in a fairy dwelling, thinking they had played music there for but a single night.


Mari Lwyd

An example of this old folk festival of carrying a horse's head from house to house at new Year - in Welsh!

For a use of this tradition shifted into the mythological realm as a story go