A wise man once said: ‘Skye is not a place but an intoxication’. None more so than it’s fascination with fairies and their place in the legends of the island. I have spent hours and hours reading the legends and stories of the Celtic folk and never found anyone to explain the origins of fairies to the Isle of Skye. And then I came across a wonderful book, written just after WW2, by Otta Swire Skye: the Island and it’s Legends, a collection of the stories and legends of the old island stories that she gathered in her many years of visiting and later living on the island.
In her book she describes two possible origins for the fairies so abundant in the historic stories of Skye.
‘In highland superstition there seems to be two quite different and distinct theories about the fairies – one is more Scandinavian than Celtic and suggests they fell from heaven as fallen angels [and hid from God’s sight in woods and mounds….] The Celtic theory is of a people who lived side by side with their human neighbours, wore the same clothes, had the same possessions but they had no iron and they feared it. They showed great kindness but would also take revenge on any who offended them. They were, in Skye, small and dark and spoke both Gaelic and a strange ‘fairy’ tongue. Flint arrow heads were ‘fairy -arrows’. In fact they were the old inhabitants of the island – the little dark Neolithic people, Iberians or older, who were here before the Celts and who, as the fairies or ‘little people’ show all the traits you would expect in the conquered. They lived underground in the ‘Picts’ houses’ or ‘fairy mounds’, feared the iron they had never owned and took every chance to annoy those of their conquerors who had not become their friends. It would be interesting to know whether the belief that it is lucky to be ‘first-footed’ at New Year by a dark man goes back to the time when those who made friends with the little dark people did not lose beasts or gear. ‘
Whatever your take on the existence of fairies and what magical abilities they did or did not possess, the Scottish islanders historically grew up with these stories as part of their own and their beliefs in these mystical creatures enabled them to make sense of their world in their time. Fairies feature everywhere across Skye. There’s a Fairy Bridge, Fairy Flag, Fairy Glen and Fairy pools.
I wasn’t able to visit the fairy pools which are described in an article on medievalists.net as ‘naturally occurring pools typically under waterfalls, usually with very clear water, unique rock formations and surrounded in vivid colour. ….. These pools are graced with an abundance of minerals and decorated with blue-green algae which give them a reputation as places of healing’. I located this beautiful artwork (above) that paints the picture vividly for us lose ourselves in for a moment, from a Countryfile article, Jan 2020.
Another artists impressions enables us to easily imagine fairies living by these turquoise pools, fed by a string of small waterfalls, near Glen Brittle, at the foot of the Black Cuillin mountains. It is also said that these pools attracted selkies, mythological creatures disguised as large seals during the day, would come to the beach where they would shed their skins and change into human form for the night, to bathe in the pools under the light of a full moon.
We did, however, manage a delightful visit to the Fairy Glen – a place said to have been built by the fairies themselves and – to one who grew up with Tinkerbell, The Faraway Tree and fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen – this Fairy Glen met all my childhood expectations of where fairies would dwell. My imagination went into overdrive as I imagined stories in my head that I will perhaps, one day, share. Most of us with children will have introduced them to the tooth fairy when they were young and my two were also blessed with regular visits, letters and gifts from a garden fairy who was always there for them when they needed a bit of cheering up.
We all need a bit of magic and wonder in our lives, something we sadly lose as we are introduced to ‘adulthood’ and we forget to play, dream and imagine. Well this Fairy Glen most definitely allows one’s thoughts to wander back into childhood stories where the fairies cared for the vulnerable, were kind to the weak, fought off dangers at their own risk and had delightful magical powers, and their wings glowed in the moonlight.
Fairytales and folklore entwine in many Celtic legends and are a lovely enrichment to the history of these enchanting places we are so fortunate to have on our doorstep. What was your favourite fairytale as a child I wonder? Could you still retell it today? What stories do your children or grandchildren enjoy reading about? Do we still encourage our imaginations to explore possibilities through stories? Or are we told (subconsciously perhaps) to resist ‘this nonsense’ and focus on facts, rather than fiction?……
I am reminded that Jesus told stories, his parables were often fictional in content but with factual messages in their telling. He used stories to create images his listeners could visualise and understand, in the hope they would be able to grasp his message easier than if he just told them the practical fact or message. Stories such as the Good Samaritan or the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, the Great Pearl are all with fictional characters to illustrate a factual point to his listeners. We still tell these stories and find insight in them as children and adults alike. We allow our imagination to picture the scene and imagine what was going on in the story.
Stories are ever so important to hold onto, and stories that are fictional or fantasy are not necessarily nonsense – they can have something in them for us to discover about ourselves or the world around us. Fairies and folklore are stories that enriched the history of the celtic people and helped them make sense of matters they did not understand. The intoxication of Skye is, in part, due to the folklore and mystery around such places as this Fairy Glen.
I, for one, will allow myself to revisit these places in my mind, where the little people may very well have inhabited once upon a time. Perhaps they still do!…. I feel happy here, content, magical, alive. Is that not a good place to be? Is that not where happy ever afters begin…… step back into your childhood and retell the fairytales of your youth. I recall they all began with once upon a time….. Can you imagine?
“ Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Gospel of Mark chapter 10 verse 15)