Ancient Scottish Highlanders were a superstitious people. They explained the natural world in supernatural ways and believed in fairies—good and bad. The only fairies of which I am aware are the tooth fairy and St. Nicholas, the jolly ole elf. Author Sheila Currie is a well-known authority on Scottish history and customs. In today’s post, she gives a glimpse of the dark side of Scottish fairies. Sheila also introduces her new book, The Banshee of Castle Muirn.
The Dark Side of Fairies by Sheila Currie
The fairy folk, na daoine sìth as they are in Scotland, could be kind to people, but they could steal and maim and even kill. So how did Highlanders deal with the dark side?
Most fairies lived in a fairy hill or sìthean. Anyone, who passed by their homes,
often heard music and saw dancing and fine food within. Soon he was making merry with them in palatial surroundings. But, when he left, he couldn’t find his family or friends. He’d spent a few days in the fairy hill, but 20 years had gone by in the real world.
When the fairies ate human food, they stole the goodness from it but left a semblance of real food. After a week or two people, who only ate the changed food, starved. Grace said over such food revealed it to be rubbish.
Fòidean or small burning peats were also thrown at the fairies to drive them away. They usually travelled on an eddy of wind, the oiteag sluaigh. If the left shoe, the toisgeul, was thrown at a retreating fairy troop, they dropped whatever they’d stolen.
But the best thing to drive off the fairies was iron. Fairies raided houses when the strong were absent. For at least three days, women about to give birth needed someone present to prevent the fairies from carrying her and her newborn away. Iron nails driven into the bedstead or iron tools placed under the bed helped repel them. Even an iron pin would give them pause.
But the benefits of a fairy lover, a leannan-sìthe, were many. A fairy could give her lover a seun or charm to protect him from danger on the road or in battle. She could make him wealthy or, if angry, she’d thin his herds with her voracious appetit. If he was short-tempered with her, she’d disappear with her children. If he offended her greatly, he was in danger of his life. Some said their children were ùraisgean, brownies or hobgoblins, the result of mésalliance. The brownies were said to be short and spindle-legged with wrinkled faces; they were consigned to help out in houses, but frequently they did mischief.
The bean-nighe, the washer woman, was a particularly terrifying entity found washing clothes and armour by a stream–the clothes of warriors about to die in battle. Because they knew they’d surely die that day, they fought with wild courage and sacrificed themselves to save their fellows.
The banshee or ban-sìth was the messenger of death. No hostile man got near her for fear of her strength and magic. They said she wore a beautiful red, green or white gown; and was to be found combing her hair in deserted places. Some said the banshee was old, others said she was young with golden hair. Ordinary folk didn’t know that the ban-sìth was not immortal, merely long-lived.
So that’s what people believed. But how much was true?
In my novel The Banshee of Castle Muirn an old wise woman wants to retire and recruit Shona Campbell to replace her. Alasdair MacDonald is charmed by her beauty and kindness, and is falling in love with her; he has no idea that Shona has the potential to become a banshee. She is reluctant to tell him that she is training to become one of the most frightening fairies. Will he believe that much of the belief in fairies is gossip and slander of the worst kind? Can Shona become a full banshee and still find love?