Fairies, Imps, and Other Mythical Creatures.
It is a cool morning and I’m standing on the side of a rough tarred lane some five miles from Alfriston in East Sussex. The sun is still low on the horizon and a cool, fresh breeze is blowing in from the south. In front of me, not one hundred metres away is the truly breathtaking Long Man of Wilmington, a 69 metre tall chalk figure cut into the steep grassy slope of Windover Hill.
A Scheduled Ancient Monument, the origins of the Long Man are unknown although archaeological work suggests that it could date from the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But this is not the only magnificent hill figure in this picturesque part of the country for not far away is the beautiful Old Litlington white horse, carved onto the side of Hindover Hill looking east over the River Cuckmere. Interestingly, there are actually two white horses on the hill although one can no longer be seen as it was overgrown in the 1920s. The second horse, which is visible today, was cut in 1924 when three men decided to cut it overnight so as to startle the locals with the sudden appearance of the horse in the morning. Since its initial cutting, the horse has been acquired by the National Trust and has been scoured several times although it, like many other chalk figures in Second World War, was camouflaged so as not to provide a land marker for German bombers.
Fairies, it has been said, used to live in the area just to the north east of Alfriston at a place called Burlough Castle, a natural feature on the River Cuckmere. Although called a ‘castle’ the top has been ploughed so often that it is now nearly flat so that any remnants or theories about the place being a medieval fort have long disappeared.
There exists a quaint local folklore story about two men who were ploughing the area when they heard a fairy from under the ground. The fairy explained that he had been baking and had broken his peel, a shovel-like tool used by bakers to slide loaves of bread and other baked goods into and out of an oven. One of the men took pity on the fairy and mended the broken peel and was later rewarded with some fairy beer. The other man refused to believe in fairies and soon died.
But fairies and fairy sightings are certainly not unusual. Indeed, no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in their existence as, in 1920, a series of five remarkable photos appeared to show fairies cavorting and playing in an English garden. These were subsequently published in The Strand magazine and Conan Doyle, a spiritualist, was over enthusiastic and interpreted them as tangible evidence of the existence of psychic phenomena and the supernatural.
The photos were taken by 16 year old Elsie Wright and 10 year old Frances Griffiths with the first being taken in 1917. They seem to show a variety of fairies and a winged gnome, often in conjunction with the girls themselves. The two girls regularly played together beside a stream at the bottom of a garden and would often come home with wet feet and shoes claiming that they’d been playing with the fairies. To prove it, Elsie took her father’s camera, returning half an hour later with the camera and the evidence.
Elsie’s father was a keen amateur photographer and quickly developed the plate which curiously showed Frances leaning on a bush while four fairies danced in front of her. Knowing his daughter’s artistic ability Arthur quickly dismissed the photograph as cardboard cut outs. However, not to be outdone, two months later the girls borrowed the camera again, this time returning with a photograph of Elsie seemingly playing with a 12 inch tall winged gnome.
Although Arthur could not explain the second photograph, he still concluded that it was a hoax and refused to lend the camera to the girls again. His wife Polly, however, believed the photographs to be genuine and, after attending a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford, showed the photographs to the speaker who promptly put them on display at the society’s annual conference.
The strange photos soon came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leading member of the society and he had the plates examined for forgery by a photography expert who, somewhat surprisingly, gave the opinion that they were “entirely genuine, unfaked photographs [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models.” However, it must be noted that at no stage did he say that they were photographs of actual fairies but concluded that “these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time”.
Gardner took this as a clarification that the photographs were genuine which soon lead to Conan Doyle becoming involved. Gardner and Conan Doyle then sought a second expert opinion from the photography company Kodak who agreed that the plates showed no signs of being faked. They also expressed the opinion that they were not conclusive evidence as to the existence of fairies.
In the end Kodak refused to issue a certificate of authenticity but this didn’t deter Conan Doyle who, although involved in a world tour, extolled their virtues.
Then, in 1920, Elsie took another three photographs. The first showed Frances in profile with a winged fairy, the second depicted Elsie with a hovering fairy offering her flowers and the third portraying a strange fairy sunbath, complete with two apparently semi-transparent fairies.
Although curiosity in the Cottingley Fairies declined in the early 1920s, a newspaper reporter tracked down Elsie in 1971. In the subsequent interview Elsie steadfastly claimed that she had taken photos of her imagination, a story she was to stick to until 1983 when the two women admitted that the photos were faked, Elsie having copied the fairies from a popular children’s book called Princess Mary's Gift Book. Remarkably, both maintained that, although the pictures were faked, they really had seen fairies.
Interestingly, Frances went to her death maintaining that the fifth photograph was indeed real, and that she had actually photographed fairies. Elsie disagreed and claimed that she had faked this one as well and that she was the photographer, and not Frances. “The joke was only meant to last two hours,” said Elsie towards the end of her life. “It lasted 70 years.”
Although crude compared to today’s digitally enhanced photographs, the girl’s shots seem quite delightfully playful, if not somewhat wooden. And of course, although the photos were faked, looking back at the lovely images one gets the feeling that, fake as they are, the fairies were very much real to the girls.
Strangely though, sightings of fairies are really not that uncommon in England and across the British Isles. In fact so common are the reports that one could ask whether the modern day sightings of fairies are in fact misidentified sightings of other small, human-like creatures such as elves, goblins, piskies, brownies and knockers? Of course, this notion is simply too outlandish to even consider, but if we were to consider it then what, exactly, would we be talking about?
What are fairies? And what is the difference between all these strange little folk of legend? Indeed, one could even ask, what is the difference between fairies and other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, orbs, Will O’ the Wisps, sprites and other fleetingly seen creatures or beings? Given this, maybe one should refrain from trying to find differences and should instead concentrate on the similarities, which are closer than people may think.
The English word ‘fairy’ is a derivative of the old French word faerie, from the Latin fata meaning fate. This means that the origins of fairies are with classical Greek ‘Fates’, who were believed to control the future and destiny of humans.
Most writers of the modern age see fairies and related creatures as mythology and legend and therefore the phenomenon is relegated to the realms of folklore. However, this appears not to be the case as a number of books have been written that chronicle reports of fairy encounters and surprisingly show a consistency from both historical and modern reports.
Sadly the word ‘fairy’ or ‘faerie’ has been so misappropriated that it now appears to describe cute little Disney characters that twinkle and sparkle and buzz around like happy miniature humans. And yet, before they were demonised by the Christian Church, fairies were believed to be very powerful creatures and widely feared and revered. Interestingly it has been suggested that that the medical term ‘stroke’ comes from the Old English to be ‘fairy struck’.
As such it seems our little fairies are not the cute and harmless creatures we see in children’s cartoons. Indeed, in the movie Labyrinth starring David Bowie and utilising the brilliance of Jim Henson’s Muppet Shop, fairies are depicted as nasty little biting creatures that are routinely killed by a goblin with an insecticide spray of some sort.
However, the notion that 21st century life can be shared with magical beings seems quite ridiculous until it is realised that fairies goes back to beyond the written word and are found in almost all archaic cultures. Although almost killed off in the Christian Middle Ages, the belief in fairies never quite died and made a surprising comeback during Victorian times. This is evident by the enthusiasm shown by Conan Doyle with the Cottingley Fairies and through the work of folklorists of the time who collected stories and experiences and contributed to a growing awareness that these old beliefs were fading and being slowly lost to a rapidly modernising society.
Since that time enthusiasts in the field of fairy lore have taken two distinct paths. The first, where the subject matter is looked at as a part of the cultural heritage and folklore where old traditions and stories are examined to find meaning and norms in ancient societies, and the other, where, inexplicably, fairy encounters are reported as real events.
As we have already discovered, there are many creatures that could be attributed to fairy lore. As such we would be wrong to simply think of fairies as a Disney construct or as Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths portrayed them. In fact to understand it more we need to think of fairies as a part of a greater supernatural issue that includes ghosts, religious visions, shamanism, angels, and other strange phenomena. Indeed, we should not try to prove the object reality of fairies so much as to acknowledge that something, whatever that maybe, is happening and that we really don’t understand it, whether from a psychological, spiritual, cultural or physiological point of view. And this something that is happening is remarkably widespread and consistent and has been for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
It is almost universal, due once again to the Disney style fairy, that they are seen as an embodiment of good, whereas, as Janet Bord in her 1997 book Fairies, Encounters with Little People notes, “they are mostly not the pretty winged fairies that appear in children's picture books. Real fairies can be frightening.”
Indeed, despite their gentle reputation, they are not all flower rings and pixie dust. Recent claimed sightings suggest they can be aggressive, bad tempered and out to do people harm as revealed in the first fairy census for 60 years which heard from an incredible 450 people have reported seeing or interacting with them.
In the census, conducted by the Faery Investigation Society, witnesses spoke of a variety of phenomena, including small but aggressive fairies, tree-monsters and grumpy gnomes dressed somewhat like Oxford scholars.
The Faery Investigation Society, originally formed in 1927 and whose members included Lord Dowding the Battle of Britain hero and, maybe surprisingly, Walt Disney, was recently relaunched by Dr Simon Young of the International Studies Institute in Florence, Italy who stated that “Fairies seem to have changed. Gone are the friendly ones, now people are reporting a scarier, creepier underside.”
Young further explained; “People’s idea of fairies has changed, but it is odd how many have reported seeing things that resemble centuries-old legends. If you go back 500 or 600 years fairies make people jump, they see them as fearsome and potentially dangerous beings. This has certainly come back.”
Interesting he also added, “I don’t believe in fairies, wings and glitter, but I most certainly believe my witnesses. There is no question that something happened to these people. The question is, what?”
Indeed, an Essex teenager who replied to the census noted that, while on a camping trip, he walked around behind his tent to relieve himself only to find that he was not alone; “when I looked down there appeared silhouetted a small shape with his hands on his hips, I could see it by a faint light coming through a large hole behind him in the hedgerow. I got the impression of someone very angry. This scared me and needless to say I could not do what I intended. Slowly backing away I quickly apologized. (I) sincerely believed I had almost pissed on a wee folk.”
Young, while being interviewed about the census noted the same. “Generally speaking, the higher the hills the more malevolent fairies get. The fairies of the Highlands of Scotland, say, were intimidating. The fairies of the Hampshire or Sussex, say, were generally tamer, though they too had bad tempers if they were crossed. There you were more likely to be spun round and nipped a bit if you annoyed the fey. Death wasn’t typical.”
Young also noted that he believed that fairies “cover lots of different beings from flesh-eating Highland demons, to benign ‘small people’ in Cornwall, by some definitions they include willo-the-wisp as well as mermaids. There is a very varied spectrum then. However, I would say that the majority of folklore creatures that go by the name fairy are connected squarely to the landscape: a glen, a bridge, a clough, a wood, a lake or a house.”
Bord, from her research, came up with roughly the same conclusion although she tended to suggest that that fairies often appear wearing clothes made from natural materials such as moss and leaves and their garments are sometimes described as jerkins, hose, leggings, breeches. The colour of the clothing is most often recorded as green, but also other earthy colours such as reds and browns. Pointed caps are also often described but mainly in modern accounts. Surprisingly, and despite modern public perception of winged fairies, wings are rarely reported and it would seem that fairies are pretty much flightless. However, having said that, it appears that they are able to disappear and reappear in another place in some magical way.
In her book Bord concentrated on places that were identifiable and able to be visited today and used sources from a range of traditional folklore to modern first-hand sighting reports of fairies or fairy like sightings, presenting them as first hand reports of fairies and little people from all over the world.
In one account she tells of a friend who reported seeing a winged fairy in 1947 by the sea at St. David’s in Pembrokeshire one summer's day when she was five years old while was walking home from the beach with her mother. They were in unspoilt countryside close to a rocky shore when they saw, to the right of the path, hovering over a gorse bush “a tiny pure white creature, with wings, like the traditional Christmas tree fairy but perhaps only an inch to an inch and a half high.” Both were adamant that it was not a moth or a dragonfly as it hovered in an upright position. Both were equally sure that what they had seen was a fairy.
Although this fairy appears to be more of the 20th century Disney construct, this is a sanitised view as, in traditional folklore, as well as modern reports that fairies, as we have seen carry an air of foreboding and menace with them and that people generally feel frightened when they come across them.
Indeed, Bord notes that, far from being Tinkerbell like entities, fairies vary greatly in height from a few inches tall to human sized, although the height is generally child sized, even though they look like adults, often with beards.
Although Bord admits that none of her recorded encounters can be verified she proposes that the large number of reported encounters and the similarities between them indicate that the ‘Little people’ exist. However, where she cannot say but offers possibilities such parallel universes, in other dimensions or worlds, or, quite mundanely, underground.
Other examples detailed by Bord include a man who was relaxing in a garden in Bournemouth, Dorset, when he suddenly became, “conscious of a movement on the edge of the lawn. I saw several little figures dressed in brown peering through the bushes. In a few seconds a dozen or more small people about two feet in height, in bright clothes and with radiant faces, ran on to the lawn, dancing hither and thither. This continued for four or five minutes. They were frightened away by a servant bringing tea.”
Another man, a Mr Reynolds, recalled that when he was a boy of ten while travelling on the top deck of a bus at Horsham in Sussex in 1948, he saw a little man walking across the lawn of a large garden in broad daylight. He described him as “no more than 18 inches high and covered in hair. His face was bare but had a leathery look. The nose seemed sharp. Its arms seemed longer than a human beings.”
More recently, in 1977, Cynthia Montefiore remembered a time when she was sitting in her garden in Somerset and she saw, “a little figure, about 18 inches tall, run from the lawn, finally disappearing under a young fir tree. The sturdily built figure seemed to be dressed in a brown one-piece suit. I was not able to see the face because it was turned away from me. I immediately jumped up to investigate the area around the fir tree but there was no longer any sign of the gnome.”
Marjorie Johnson, who became the secretary of the The Faery Investigation Society allegedly encountered an elf in her bedroom as a child and, as a result, grew up to be a committed fairy hunter. In the post-war years, she compiled a remarkable archive of sightings, including a family of gnomes in Wollaton Park who were observed apparently driving about in small racing cars. Johnson intended to publish her findings in her later years but was put off after some negative comments and ridicule in the tabloid press. As she told the Sunday Pictorial, “It has taken me years of study to win their friendship and discover the secrets of their sex life. But anyone who is admitted to the circle of fairy friendship is very fortunate. Through billions of years fairies have learned the secrets of universal love.”
Interestingly, it appears that the Catholic Church is one organisation who does believe in fairies as Tim Stanley found out while writing an article for The Spectator in January 2015. In his piece he recalls speaking to a Catholic academic about the Fairy Investigation Society who insisted that fairies were demonic, suggesting that; “The best thing you could do if you encounter a fairy is step on it or lay down slug pellets.”
Stanley also details reports of “gnomes, a walking tree and ‘a group of creatures, maybe 25cm tall, humanoid, hairless, with spindly limbs and slightly shiny leathery skin’ that ‘wore nothing but Oxford commoners’ gowns (no mortarboards)”.
However, as we have mentioned previously, fairies are not always quaint little folk as the following cautionary tales from Lixnaw in Ireland suggests.
On the edge of the Ballynageragh bog in west Ireland's County Kerry lies a simple public housing residence that appears to the outsider to hold no secrets or hidden tales. However, over the past two decades, no fewer than five inhabitants of the tiny white building died suddenly in tragic and strange circumstances.
One man dozed off with a lit cigarette and died of smoke inhalation while another hanged himself shortly after moving from the house. One inhabitant died in a car accident and a fourth was tragically stabbed to death while travelling in Wales. Then in November 2013, neighbours found the body of Susan Dunne, 62, in one of the cottage's bedrooms.
Dunne had moved in 18 months earlier with her autistic teenage son, who was charged with her murder and these unsettling events, tapping into the culture of legend and supernatural belief, proved to be the last straw for local villagers who petitioned for the house to be destroyed. Paddy Quilter, proprietor of Quilter's pub in Lixnaw noted, “There's a lot of people who would love to have it. All this bullshit about knocking it down.”
And although Quilter said that he didn’t believe in ghosts, he, and other locals are all too familiar with the legends and superstitions about fairies that once populated late-night tales in rural Ireland. “In the old days, they called it piseog,” Quilter stated, Piseog (pronounced pi-shawg) being a Gaelic term meaning superstition or anything supernatural. “There were a lot of piseogs and ghosts before electricity came in.”
And in this case, the word apparently pertained to the unusual and mysterious deaths of five residents of the public housing cottage as Eddie Lenihan, a story teller and folklorist suggests; “Was the house built in a place where it shouldn't be? Is there a fairy fort nearby? It might be built on a fairy path or a funeral path, which would be a problem. It'd be lunacy to be on one of those. According to the old people, if you're on a fairy path, you'll never have peace or luck in a house like that.”
But the belief in fairies in Ireland goes even deeper than this. Criostoir Mac Carthaigh, an archivist at the National Folklore Collection in Dublin suggests that industrialisation, while it weakened Ireland's belief in the fairy world, didn’t completely stamp it out with the result being that many people adopted a better-safe-than-sorry attitude. For instance, many farmers continue their ancestors’ habits of not ploughing certain parts of a field as they were said to be favoured by fairies.
These beliefs stem from the Iron Age and beyond when the country was said to be under the power of the mystical Tuatha De Danann, supposedly a supernatural race in Irish mythology who were thought to represent the foremost deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. They were described as ‘like gods and yet not gods’, and were essentially thought of as being fairy beings, though some Christians viewed them as fallen angels. Indeed, historical accounts of them written by Christian monks appear centuries after they had seemingly vanished from Ireland.
The Tuatha De Danann were authoritative, strong and warlike and steeped in wisdom and magic. They claimed Ireland for their own until they were defeated by the Milesians, ancestors of the modern day Irish, around the beginning of the Iron Age. It is said that, when they were vanquished, they were forced to retreat underground to the Otherworld, and the many “fairy forts” and mounds which now dot the countryside of Ireland are the entrances to their subterranean realm.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, archaeologists have dated many of these mounds to beginning of the Iron Age and, as portals to the underground realm as well as burial chambers and fairy dwellings, these mounds are supposedly protected by ancient magic to prevent humans from desecrating or entering the underground passageways. If the magic fails and they are destroyed, curses and misfortune will follow whoever was imprudent enough to demolish a fairy fort.
Even the trees and bushes which grow around the mounds are sacred and to cut one down or injure it in any way can see the person responsible risk magical retribution, and even death.
For instance, in 1999, the National Roads Authority was notified that a proposed bypass in western Ireland would destroy a hawthorn bush that played an important role in fairy history As a result, the government rerouted the highway and built a protective fence around the bush as an offering to the spirits as destroying the bush, it was believed, could result in violent fairy revenge, ie. faulty brakes, crashing cars and ultimately death.
In 2012 a farmer was fined for the destruction of two ‘fairy forts’ in Kilmurry, County Cork which clearly illustrates that, though many people may not openly confess to a belief in fairies and the Otherworld, this desire to protect ‘fairy dwellings’, and the fear of arousing their wrath shows a deep rooted belief in their existence.
Owen Driscoll, an agricultural consultant in West Cork has worked with thousands of farmers over the years and suggests that fairy forts are sacrosanct, protected by cultural traditions entwined within Irish rural life. “I think that 99% of farmers would be very slow to cause damage to a fairy fort or even a fairy tree,” and, “I don’t see any change in that with younger farmers. There is a sense that if you mess with the devil, then he may mess with you. You will still be told stories of a farmer who damaged a fort or removed a whitethorn tree and then died within a short time, or suffered some other tragedy. For an older generation, the idea that fairies existed went beyond a belief. It was considered absolute fact.”
Jenny Butler is another who follows this line of thinking; “I think people are very hesitant about admitting to a belief in fairies. I have done some research into new-age beliefs and people are more comfortable admitting to a belief in angels, for example. Yet, very few farmers will remove a fairy fort.”
She also suggests that people are hesitant about talking about fairies because the traditional means of dealing with them can be serious. “The myth of a changeling is common in folk traditions across Europe. In Ireland, there was a concept that fairies needed humans to maintain their bloodline and they would swap an old fairy man for a young baby. Or, they might substitute a baby with a stock; which is an illusion of a baby that soon withers and dies.”
Interestingly, these beliefs have continued into relatively recent times as, in 1895, Michael Cleary convinced his family and the local community that his wife, Bridget, was a changeling. This was later confirmed by a traditional fairy doctor who attempted to cure her with herbs and, when this didn’t work, they threatened her with fire finally burned her to death. Previously, in 1894, it was said that two women were charged for placing a young boy on a hot shovel to try and burn the fairy out of him.
Butler, who holds a Lectureship in the Study of Religions at University College Cork where she teaches modules on Western Esotericism and New Religious Movements as well as contemporary religions in the Irish context explains; “There are also stories of changeling children being left on dung heaps overnight; the fairies would see one of their own being mistreated and swap back the child they had taken. Another method of exposing a changeling was to do something unexpected; if the fairy noticed, or made a comment, it would have revealed itself.”
Most of these stories, fanciful as they may seem to the outsider, are matter of fact. The existence of fairies is taken as an recognized truth. They play games and music, they dance and they have funerals. They are seen as a part of a community that coexists with our own modern society and, on occasions interact with us. They may be destructive or benevolent, however, in general they are somewhat indifferent to our presence. However, one element of the fairy lore remains consistent; if you interfere with their lives or their forts, they will exact revenge.
Whatever the case, fairies and stories of fairies continue to pop up in the media to this day, emphasising the fact that the phenomena is not just a folktale steeped in the mists of time. Indeed, if anything it appears to suggest that, like ghosts and other supernatural occurrences, something is happening.
An example of this can be seen when, over a number of years, a university lecturer John Hyatt, 53, claimed to have photographed flying fairies in the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire which proved, he suggests, that they exist.
Hyatt, the Director of Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University insisted that the photographs were genuine and that they had not been altered in any way. “It was a bit of a shock when I blew them up, I did a double take. I went out afterwards and took pictures of flies and gnats and they just don’t look the same.”
In 2009, Phyllis Bacon, 55, believed she took a photo of a fairy at the bottom of her garden in New Addington, near Croydon in South London. Mrs Bacon, 55, said she simply clicked the camera button while talking to friends after dinner and that she wasn’t even looking through the viewfinder at the time. And, rightly dumbfounded at what she saw, claimed she then spent months seeking a rational explanation for the strange image. However, after searching the internet for pictures of butterflies, moths and beetles that might match her photograph, she was still none the wiser.
Bacon, who denies that the photograph was faked in anyway added; “No one I've shown the photos to has come up with any plausible explanation as to what the figure is. Looking back, I think there was a fungi fairy ring in the garden at the time I took the picture, but I don't really know what to make of it all. To be honest, I don't know what it is and I'm keen to listen to anyone's suggestions. But until someone can tell me otherwise I'm going to go on thinking it's a fairy.”
Of course, both Bacon and Hyatt could have simply taken photos of insects and camera angles, light and other atmospheric conditions have somehow managed to render the image fairy-like. But then again, as we have mentioned previously, these reports are, if not commonplace, then at least not infrequent.
But fairy sightings are not confined to the grassy fields of Ireland nor suburban backyards of London as in Cornwall they have their own version of pixies.
Piskies, like their cousins, fairies, are a race of ‘Little people’ who live in the west country of England. In appearance they are said to look like old men with wrinkled faces and are small in stature with red hair. Like fairies, they tend to dress in earthy colours, especially green, and often use natural materials such as grass, leaves, moss and lichen.
Unlike trolls, dwarves, elves and goblins, piskies are generally cheerful little people although they possess a mischievous and prankish streak. They will often help the elderly and infirm yet will equally lead able bodied travellers astray on the lonely and windswept moors of the West Country. Not surprisingly, they are often associated with ancient places of worship such as stone circles and barrows.
Legends associated with piskies are many with some seeing them as the souls of pagans unable to transcend into heaven. Others maintain that they are the remnants of pagan gods, banished when Christianity swept the land and as such are doomed to keep shrinking in size until they completely disappear. Early clergymen even suggested that piskies were the souls of unbaptised children and as such they were fated to roam the moors forever.
And apart from piskies, Cornwall possesses another strange little creature often thought of as the equivalent of Irish leprechauns and English and Scottish brownies, the Knocker.
The tin mines of Cornwall have an ancient history that extends back beyond human memory and is lost in the mists of time. Cornish trade links with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, pre-dating Roman Britain, have been documented by Greek historians and around 2500BC a trade in tin and copper started to grow with these foreign traders exchanging bronze tools and gold ornaments for the rare Cornish minerals.
Fairy belief in Cornwall played a pivotal role in the foundation and development of Celtic culture and, as a result, Celtic Cornwall has countless myths and legends involving fairies, including the Knocker. These peculiar subterranean residents of Cornish mines are said to stand about two feet tall and are grizzled but not deformed and wear tiny versions of a standard miner's garb as well as committing random mischief, such as stealing miners tools and food. Their name comes from the knocking on the mine walls that happens just before cave-ins which, to some miners, was seen as a warning to get out of the mine before an imminent collapse. Others, however, viewed them in a less than helpful light suggesting that they were malevolent spirits and the knocking was the sound of them hammering at walls to cause the cave-ins.
Still, the overarching belief regarding Knockers is that they are the spirits of people who had died in previous accidents and as such are helpful in warning miners of impending danger. To give thanks for the warnings, and to avoid future peril, the miners often threw a crust of their pasties into the mines for the Knockers.
James MacKillop in his 1998 publication, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, describes the Knockers as; “Cornish mine-spirits, thought to be the ghosts of the Jews who worked the mines in the 11th and 12th centuries. For the most part the gnomelike Knocker is thought harmless when out of sight of humans and cannot endure the sign of the cross.”
MacKillop also draws parallels with a Welsh relation to the Knocker known colloquially as the Coblynau who are; “Welsh mine goblins, not unlike the Knockers of Cornwall. Although usually seen as quite ugly and standing only 18 inches high, they are perceived as being friendly and helpful. That know where rich lodes of ore may be found.”
Patricia Monaghan in her book of 2008, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore also gives a description of these subterranean creatures, described them as follows; “strange knockings were sometimes heard on mineshaft walls. Nobody appeared after the unearthly rapping, for the invisible knockers were the ghost of long dead miners...The Knockers were not dangerous but helpful, their knocking growing louder when miners came near a rich vein of ore. They were private creatures who did not appreciate being spied upon. One man who did so, by the name of Barker, managed to learn their Faery language sufficiently to hear them express their annoyance at his presence, and their plan to leave their Faery tools on his knee, hence the Cornish proverb ‘stiff as Barker’s knee.”
Could all these witnesses be mistaken? Could these people who claimed to have seen fairies or ‘Little people’ be like those who claim to see ghosts? That is, are they simply mistaking or misinterpreting what they see or are they subject to suggestion or atmospheric conditions that create a situation whereby a person’s eyes misconstrues what they are actually seeing?
Without doubt, many sightings of fairies, goblins, gnomes, elves or whatever are simply a trick of light or a misperception due to a familiarity with the subject due to popular media and folklore. That is to say, fairy tales have been around for so long that they have become imprinted in our brains. For instance, who as a child has not read of fairies and goblins or trolls who live under bridges waiting billy goats? Who of us have not, as a child, hidden under our covers late at night while a storm rages outside and the creaking of the house becomes the footsteps of ghosts or other strange creatures?
And yet, as much as suggestion can play a part in our perception, there still remain numerous peculiar encounters that simply cannot be dismissed. What is one to make of sober, logical people suddenly coming across small men in green wandering across fields or along rural lanes? Or perfectly clear-headed people watching as little men in funny clothes wander across their lawn on bright windless summer days?
Surely this can be equated to the situation we find when reporting ghost encounters in that, although most can be easily dismissed for one reason or another, it still leaves a disconcerting number of reports that, although cannot be verified, cannot be totally dismissed. Perhaps we should leave the final word to Dr Simon Young who noted, “I don’t know what’s going on. But perhaps it indicates in part that the countryside has a presence.”
Whatever the case, there can be no denying the fact that the British Isles remains firmly tied to its ancient fairy lore and faith. This faith is evident in the many fairy-related place names, stories, as well as in the reverence with which they are often treated. And even if you dismiss tales of fairies, one thing is for certain; belief in these creatures in turn leads to a greater respect for the environment and for the ancient monuments of historic Britain and in an age when so little is sacred surely this is a good thing?
As such, who is to say that the fairies encountered at Burlough Castle north east of Alfriston in Sussex were not real or not? Perhaps, just perhaps, they were real?
The road that runs between Alfriston and Seaford is officially called Alfriston Road although locals still call it The White Way, probably due to the chalky ground that it cuts through. Not only is it associated in a small way with fairies but it is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a white dog who belonged to a local lord who was murdered by robbers and later buried in a shallow grave. The dog appears on Midsummer’s Eve every seven years and brings very bad luck to those who see it as they will experience an accident or death.
But the lonely forests and fields of Sussex are not the only place where ghost dogs have been reported. Indeed, all across England these dark, fire eyed harbingers of doom have been reported, from Cornwall to Scotland and everywhere in between. And as we shall see in the next chapter, these devil dogs not only exist in legend, but also, it would seem, in reality, if we are to take heed of the reports of numerous reliable witnesses.