The recurring fascination with fairies is at the heart of an admirably grown-up if flawed collection of writing
MAGICAL FOLK: BRITISH AND IRISH FAIRIES 500 AD TO THE PRESENT Edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook Gibson Square, £16.99
MY grandmother Maud and aunt Olivia (known as Evie) were both strong believers in fairies. Maud claimed no sightings, but attributed various household woes – curdled milk, stopped mangle, the disappearance of every seventh radish from a row – to the displeasure of the “little people”. Physical evidence for them was restricted to troves of “fairy pipes”, which look very much like regular clay pipes abraded in her sandy soil; I have some of them still. Evie’s belief was more developed. She was regularly visited by a small figure in a green felt suit, who was described as “distinguished” and a “gentle man” (with equal weight on the two elements, in the Ulster way). He was sometimes heard walking at speed along the lane, but was also seen sitting on the yard wall, quietly smoking one of those pipes. He was apparently harmless, but Evie took the precaution of curtseying to him when they crossed paths.
Maud and Evie both believed in fairies, but were severe on the subject of wings. These, I was always told, were fictional, the invention of book illustrators and animators, and not to be taken seriously. Ironically, my Scottish grandfather, a pragmatic and empirical man, but also a profound admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was inclined to share his hero’s undying belief in the veracity of the Cottingley fairies, which were photographed in 1917 and 1920 by cousins nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright. His logic was that Doyle was a man of science and therefore unfoolable. He was also, of course, caught up in the anxious spiritualism of the post-war years, where every family had lost a son or brother and in which a new construction of femininity – and very young femininity – was countering the awful reality of wretched men in bloodied, muddied khaki, with brutalised limbs and faces.
Richard Sugg’s chapter in Magical Folk on Yorkshire and the Cottingley photographs – which were eventually revealed to be fakes in the 1981 when both women confessed – is the most developed in the book, but then the Cottingley story has already been covered, pro and contra, in umpteen articles, books, documentaries and screenplays. Mel Gibson even tried to buy the Midg and Cameo cameras which were used, but they were saved for the nation and welcomed home to the photography museum in Bradford by cheering crowds.
Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook provocatively sub-subtitle their collection “500 AD to the present”. Belief in fairies, like that in witches, is thought to be atavistic and superstitious, but modern sightings are still frequent. Houlbrook’s excellent chapter on Scottish mainland fairies includes a meeting with a mother and two daughters near Rosemarkie on the Black Isle. The girls, en route to the cinema and Pizza Hut, solemnly place coins in a tree already crusted with tributes. Fairy Glens were once common in Scotland. I grew up in Dunoon where a favourite tourist attraction (we sometimes wondered in adolescence if it was the only one) was Morag’s Fairy Glen, basically a modest son et lumiere with a few plaster sprites.
Why do we still believe in fairies? The best single statement of a reason comes in Young’s Cumbria chapter, headed Fairy Holes and Fairy Butter, where he lists various latter-day manifestations, including fairy doors, fairy hamlets and a gnome village at the bottom of England’s deepest lake, Wastwater, where divers apparently take selfies with kelpies. Wrong breed of little person, but the phrasemaking is irresistible. For Young, this is all about “industrial, and now digital human beings reconnecting with the wilds that they have left behind”.
Psychoanalysis may also have put paid to other reasons for believing in fairies, which often in these essays come across as tricky, if not malign, creatures. Various pucks, pooks, poukes and pwca will lead you astray in the night, which is fairy time. It is also drinking time, and many a local fairy legend was presumably concocted to explain how you ended up sleeping in a ditch. Other rationalisations were more elaborate. A horse found sweating in its stable in early morning was a sure sign of having been ridden by fairies. Or used in a smuggling operation. Or for carrying a husband to his mistress’s door in the small hours.
Houlbrook doesn’t say what movie the young girls in Rosemarkie were off to see. Perhaps it was one of the Harry Potters. JK Rowling has to claim some credit or blame for reviving interest in such indigenous figures as the dobby (who as Dobby the House Elf is the most annoying character in movie history after Jar Jar Binks; I positively cheered when the little blighter died) and the Cornish piskey. The latter proved the undoing of Hogwarts’ hapless teacher of defence against the dark arts, Kenneth Branagh looking and sounding like he’s just encountered a football crowd on its way home. Young’s point is particularly relevant here: where Frances and Elsie had to use old-fashioned film photography, digitisation and CGI bring ancient creatures to vivid life.
What is delightful about Magical Folk is that the authors, nearly all academics with a particular interest in British folklore, take their subjects very seriously and plainly indeed, without complex psychological discussion of what squirmy corners of the unconscious fairies and their kind come from. Their research has been hugely assisted by the digitisation of vast amounts of information; regional newspapers, ancient research papers, local bulletins, hand-written testimonies, once lost in dusty archives, are now accessible to all. Of course, digitisation has the downside of going hand in hand with globalisation, and there is a danger that fairy lore loses its distinctively local elements as it becomes more widely studied and institutionalised. Fortunately, the editors have divided up the British Isles county by county and region by region, in order to preserve the distinctiveness of regional variants. In one part of the country, it is humans who repair fairy “pells” (for lifting bread out of the oven); in others, it is fairies