5 - The Little People
I believe in the Little People who used to live in the Isle of Man; but they were not really fairies. There were many races of pygmies in Europe. They were much the same as the present-day pygmies of Africa, small people bullied by their bigger neighbours and driven out of the best lands into the hills and woods and other inaccessible places. They raid cultivated fields and play pranks, but if their thefts are forgiven and food is sometimes left out for them, they will, in return, leave gifts of their hunting spoils, meat, ivory and skins.
It is said that at times they steal babies and leave one of their own in return, as British fairies were said to do. Pygmies now live in the same way in Central Africa, Malaya, New Guinea, the Deccan, Ceylon and the Philippines. I have known many of them and they all use poisoned arrows, and are thought to possess magical powers.
There is evidence for these pygmy races in Europe. Many rock dwellings are too small for a modern man but are very comfortable for children. People of the invading races who had driven them out of the best lands were inclined to dislike them as they raided their crops and killed their cattle. In time they found that if the Little People were well treated they would become friendly and help them, as when the Little Folk came to the aid of the Southerners in their battle at Fairy Bridge.
In the Western Isles of Scotland, as in the Isle of Man, if people had the Cearrd Chomuinn (Association Craft), a species of handicraft fellowship, they could get the fairies to come and help them with ploughing and reaping in return for gifts, as a European in Malaya gets help from the local Little People, the Saki and Jakoon.
The Fairy Mistress was a recognised type called the Leannan Sidhe. She was good and beautiful, but dangerous, and you must not beat her or she would run back to her people taking her children and her dowry of fairy cattle with her. Usually she exacted a promise not to tell of her fairy origin; therefore she must have been of such a size as to be taken for a mortal.
Women sometimes had fairy husbands, but they usually had to keep it a secret, or sometimes it was just the fact that he was a fairy that was kept secret, which also tends to show his size. In Scotland the Fairy Mistress often helped her husband with his craft; she could foretell his future, when he would die, or whom he would marry after her death or after she left him; but while the association lasted she was usually very jealous.
Fairy Mistresses were said to steal babies and probably they did so to make the race grow stronger. Beautiful girls were regularly kidnapped as brides for the Fairy King, and male fairies often persuaded girls to leave home, as the Highlanders in Scotland used to supply themselves with girls from the Lowlands three hundred years ago by eloping with them or kidnapping them.
The Clan of MacLeods of the Isles was founded by Leod, son of Olaf the Black, King of Man, who was son of Harold Hardraga, the Norse King who was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066. His great-grandson, the fourth chief, had a fairy wife, who gave him the celebrated fairy flag of Dunvegan, about 1380. These are all historical people and the flag still exists. This fairy wife was obviously a woman of the small race, who was nevertheless large enough to have a number of children, whose descendants are alive now.
The Little People's homes are often described as conical hills. In Eire the sidhe are conceived as living in hills or burial-mounds to the present day. A door, often concealed, opened on the hillside; there were long dark passages leading into many chambers which were sometimes lighted by lamps or torches. Practically all the stories speak of the dark, or twilight. Two miles from Castletown in the Isle of Man a village was excavated in 1943 of a Celtic or, probably, pre-Celtic people.
The largest of the houses was a timber-built round-house with a roof like an inverted saucer, made with sods and supported by thousands of oak posts set in graduated rings. The innermost ring formed a room about 18 feet in diameter with a large stone hearth in the centre. This house, about 6,000 square feet in area and 90 feet in diameter, was presumably the chief's or king's house, and he and his family lived in the centre section; all the outer circles were cattle stalls. It is thought to have been still occupied in Christian times.
The house was lit only by the central smoke-hole, which at best could give a sort of twilight. It is certain that at times they would have a watchman on the roof of this house, which would look exactly like a conical hill, and as it is almost as certain that this watchman would go up by a ladder and out by this smoke-hole instead of going all the way to the door and climbing all the way up the hill again, others would also be likely to go out this way.
Visitors of the larger races might note this, to them, curious habit of going in and out by the smoke-hole, and it is possible that a confused memory of this led to the story that witches had a habit of leaving and returning by the chimney.
These people were probably members of the numerous races who inhabited Europe in pre-Celtic times, possibly now represented by the Finns and Laplanders, small and very strong as they are described in the folk tales of many people. In the Western Isles there are many Pict houses, conical in shape and made of stone, but when covered with turf they would appear as hills. Beside the well-known Maeshow of Orkney, at Taransay on Harris there is a small one with a guard cell in the entrance passage where the sentry squatted.
This cell is built of stone and is two feet five inches high and three feet wide; evidently the sentry was of the Little People! Most of the stone-built passages are only four feet six inches high and some are as long as seventy feet. One can understand that defence needs made a small doorway desirable, also to keep out the cold, but it is unlikely that there was any special advantage in building a long passage where it would be necessary to walk in a bent position; it therefore seems that the average height of the users must have been under four and a half feet.
The Norse Bishop of Orkney, writing at Kirkwall in 1443, says: 'When Harold Haarfaga conquered the Orkneys in the ninth century the inhabitants were of two nations, the Papae (Irish Catholics) and the Peti (Picts or Pehts), and he exterminated them both.' He goes on to say: 'These Picts of Orkney were only a little exceeding pygmies in stature and worked wonderfully in the construction of their cities evening and morning, but at midday they hid themselves in little underground houses, fearing light' (Horum alteri scilicet peti parvo superantes pigmeos statura in structuris Urbium vespere et mane mira operantes, meridie vero cunctis viribus prorsus destituti in subterraneis domunculis pro timore latuerent).
By Highland tradition every chief's family had attendant dwarfs who were thought of as uncanny or fairy folk.
They were nearly naked, hairy, and of immense strength; they were mighty archers and were mischievous, fond of dancing and music and able to work magic. They usually did all the work at night English literature, too, refers to them; Milton's 'lubber fiend' nightly churns the cream, and this and other tasks are sung about in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. In later times perhaps stories of pet monkeys became mixed up with these legends and the whole was made into fairy stories.
Sir Walter Scott refers to the aboriginal or servile clans, and describes them as 'half naked, stunted in growth and miserable in aspect'. They include the MacCouls, Fian's alleged descendants, who were a kind of Gibeonites or hereditary servants to the Stewarts of Appin. Irish manuscripts of the eleventh century state that in the ninth century when the Danes overran Ireland there was nothing in the various secret places belonging to the Fians, or Fairies, which they did not discover and steal. In Brittany legend says that the old people who built the Megaliths were a dwarf people known as the Kerions, small in stature but very strong. There is an expression used 'as strong as a Kerion', much the same as one the Scots use in speaking of the Picts: 'Verra sma' but unco' strong.'
All these peoples seem to be remembered by the same characteristics: good friends but dangerous enemies, very strong, able to disappear at will, having great festivals at night and making use of poisoned arrows. They were persecuted or banished by the Church, which charged them with performing indecent rites and dances.
Witches consorted with them and they often intermarried and became the fairy kin in later legends. Scottish witch trials seem to think of witches and fairies as being the same people. As we have seen, they were thought to be experts in magic. Though small they were exceedingly agile and had a great ability for work. They would work at night and be finished by daylight, so they were seldom seen for long, and unless they took service with a man they made off into their mounds at the slightest human interference.
Until Victorian prudery covered them with airy gauze they were naked or clad in skin-tight garments. This latter may have been a misunderstanding of the Picts' practice of painting themselves with woad and lime, which makes the famous Lincoln green, the recognised fairy colour. As they were described as being of the same country at the same time, it seems likely that the descriptions of dwarfs, fairies and witches are different people's ideas of the same folk.
There are many cases of nobles employing the Little People. Before the battle of Tri-Gruinard, fought at Islay, Scotland, in the year A.D. 1598, Sir James Macdonald engaged a little man called Du-Sith (Black Elf) who was generally believed to be a fairy. During the action he killed the opposing leader, Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean, with an arrow which was afterwards found to be an Elf-bolt or stone-headed fairy arrow. This disorganised his clan, and the Macdonalds were victors.
Presumably he was one of the Little People, a mighty archer, and his arrow was poisoned, though Sir James may not have known this.
But the belief in a fairy arrow that always killed and a poisoned arrow that always killed is really much the same thing, and he probably thought of poison as being magical; the fact remains, he employed this ally and so gained the victory, and this is a matter of history.
Unfortunately the conquerors, such as Harold Haarfaga, exterminated most of them and reduced the others to a servile state living on the heaths as 'heathens', or else they intermarried with their conquerors and merged into the general population. This increased their size somewhat, and when persecuted their descendants denied being fairies or 'heathens' and would point to their size to back them up, saying: 'Fairies are small, but we are big.' At this time it might mean the Bishop's prison with mutilation or burning if one admitted being a 'heathen' or fairy. Later the free living ones were exterminated and the town-dwellers disappeared in the general population. I think I can often recognise some of their descendants to this day, short and stocky with very wide shoulders and very strong. About two hundred years ago the French believed we bred a special race in England to be sailors.
They were said to be extremely strong, with very wide shoulders and were all well under five feet high so that they could work under the extremely low decks of British warships. The French are not a race of giants, so there must have been some reason for this belief. A large number of Manxmen did distinguished service in the Navy at this time, and it was said that the Manx regiments (Fencibles) covered more ground on parade than any other British regiment, on account of the remarkable width of their shoulders.