To receive a fairy gift is an uncertain blessing: it may bring you joy, healing or the skill to make the most beautiful music in the world. It may fall softly and unbidden into your life like a ray of moonlight, but it may also vanish with the light of day if you do not keep your covenant with the Good People. Steal fairy gold and you will have a pocketful of withered leaves by the time you get home, or, like the Scottish lad who thought he’d won a pair of bagpipes from the fairies, nothing but a puff-ball and willow-reed.
The famous 17th century blind harper, Turlough O’Carolan, supposedly slept out on a fairy fort one night, and was given the gift of ceol-sidhe, the fairy music, in his dreams. When he awoke he remembered every note and played them all from memory. Ever since, thanks to modern recordings, the fairy tunes have delighted listeners throughout the world. But another lover of fairy music was not so lucky. A century later, an Irish piper, walking through the hills one evening, heard a fairy piper play a hauntingly beautiful tune called Móraleana. He was told that he could only play it three times in his life before an audience – any more and a curse would fall upon him. He obeyed this injunction until the day he found himself in the finals of a piping competition, and to make sure he would win, he played the fairy tune. The beauty of the melody carried the day, and he was declared the winner. But the moment the garland was placed upon his head, he grew pale and fell dead upon the stage. The fairies punished him for using their gift to further his worldly ambition.
Another man gifted with fairy music was Iain Òg MacCrimmon of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides. Iain was sitting on a fairy hill in the west of the island, feeling disconsolate because he was not considered a good enough piper to attend a competition promoted by the chieftain, MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle. A fairy woman approached him, saying:
“Your handsome looks and sweet music
Have brought you a fairy sweetheart.
I bequeath you this silver chanter:
At the touch of your fingers,
It will always bring forth the sweetest music.”
She gave him the silver chanter for his pipes, and taught him the art of piping. Iain Òg hurried off to Dunvegan Castle and won the contest over musicians from all over the Highlands, for all could tell that his music had the gift of fairy fingers on the chanter. He became the hereditary piper to the Macleods, and from that day on, the MacCrimmons of Skye produced many generations of renowned pipers and composers. He founded a famous school for pipers at Borreraig, his home in the west of Skye, where people came from all over Scotland and Ireland to study for a full seven years.
But MacCrimmon had been warned by his fairy sweetheart that should he or any of his descendants treat the silver chanter disrespectfully, the gift for music would be removed from his family forever. One stormy day, one of his descendants was returning to Skye from the nearby island of Raasay with the Chief of the Macleods. As he played in the pipers’ seat at the prow of the chieftain’s galley, the swell of the waves caused his fingers to slip. Finally, he laid down the pipes with a derogatory remark, blaming the silver chanter for his mistakes. At that moment, the chanter rose of its own accord from the galley, slipped over the gunwale and into the sea, where it has since remained. From that time on, the MacCrimmons’ hereditary gift dried up, their school of piping fell into decay, and the family’s fortunes declined. A lone cairn marks the spot where the school of piping stood, and it is said that the sound of ghostly piping can still be heard in the sea-cliffs and caverns of Borreraig.
Kindness and generosity, on the other hand, reap a lifetime of fairy gifts. In Wales, fairies are called Bendith y Mamau, the Blessing of the Mothers. Meirig, a shepherd from North Wales, took his sheep to the pastures beside Llyn Glas, the Green Lake. One morning, he awoke to find a slender fairy woman close by. She was dressing her baby, but the shepherd noticed she had hardly anything to protect him from the cold wind that blew over the lake. He took off his shirt and gave it to her to wrap the child in. The fairy thanked him and vanished, but every night after this, the shepherd found a piece of silver placed in an old clog in his cabin. He became very wealthy, married a lovely girl, and together they enjoyed the nightly gifts of the fairies for the rest of their lives, as “Bendith y Mamau was poured down upon the family, and all their descendants.”
Perhaps the greatest of all fairy gifts is the skill of the healer. Throughout the centuries, fairies have bestowed this priceless bequest upon men and women variously known as ‘Fairy Doctors’ in Ireland; ‘Wise Wives,’ in Scotland; ‘Wise Men’ in Wales, and ‘Cunning Men’ in Cornwall. In Wales, the entire corpus of herbal medicine was believed to have been the inheritance of a fairy woman to her human sons.
The story goes that a young shepherd fell in love with the beautiful fairy of Llyn y Fan Fach, in the Black Mountains. To his delight, she consented to marry him. She rose out of the lake bringing with her a dowry of white elven cattle. He took her back to his home in the village of Myddfai, where they were wed, but she warned him that if he ever struck her three times, she would go back to her underwater kingdom. In the springtime, their first child was born. Hurrying to start the journey to church, the farmer gently patted his wife on the back as they went through the door: That was the first blow. Next springtime, they awaited the birth of their second child. Now, at that time the farmer’s cousin was to be married. At the ceremony, the fairy woman shocked the congregation by weeping tears of sorrow, for she had foreseen that this marriage would end in tragedy when the new bride would soon fall and be killed. Embarrassed and annoyed, her husband gave her a reproving tap on the shoulder: this was the second blow. The following year, after their third child had been born; the farmer's cousin died of a broken heart. At the burial the fairy woman could see the spirit of the farmer's cousin was now together with that of his dead wife; and so she laughed with joy. The farmer was shocked to see her laughing at his cousin's funeral and struck her on the cheek – the third blow.
The fairy woman walked slowly away, but however fast the farmer ran after her, he could not catch up. She called her cattle to her across the fields, and they all came at her call. The oxen were at that moment ploughing in the field, but they came dragging the plough after them to the lake. The furrow, from the field in which they were ploughing to the margin of the lake, can still be seen on the hillside above the lake. All vanished beneath the waves, and the farmer never saw his wife again. But when her three sons were grown, they came to visit her at the lake, and she taught them the secrets of fairy healing through the use of herbs. They grew up to become the celebrated healers known throughout medieval Wales as the Physicians of Myddfai. Descendants of this renowned family were still practicing medicine in the 18th century and there is at least one herbalist in Dyfed today who claims descent from the famous family.
Since fairies do not thrive in the limited world of human beings, their healing gifts are often bestowed on those who make the journey to the Otherworld themselves. Those who became fairy doctors often gained their skills through illness, when the soul left the unconscious body to wander in the spirit world. When they returned to health, they found they now had supernatural abilities, and their lives were totally changed. In shamanic cultures, this has been known as the way of the "wounded healer." Because fairy doctors had lived in the spirit world, and certain diseases were believed to be caused by spirits, people struck by unaccountable illnesses trusted their ability to understand hidden causes and also to find the cure. They never used surgery or other invasive treatment methods: Charms, incantations, herbs and stones were the chief tools of their trade. They knew where to find special plants and the correct way to gather and administer them. Some also brought back the ability to see into the future. Forbidden to reveal their knowledge or the whereabouts of the herbs while they lived, these healers could only pass on their secrets as they lay dying, and then only to the eldest of the family.
In 1645, a woman named Anne Jefferies, a servant in a Cornish house, "fell into a fit" and remained ill for some time afterwards; but when she recovered she insisted she had been carried away by the fairies and, in proof of this, she returned with clairvoyant powers and the ability to heal by touch.
Later, Anne described her experiences with the fairies. She had apparently had been calling the spirits to her since she was a young girl, when she would wander through the evening countryside looking under fern leaves and into foxglove bells, singing,
"Fairy fair and fairy bright;Come and be my chosen sprite."
And by the light of the moon she would walk by the river, singing,
"Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where's my fairy dear?"
The fairies later told her they could hear her plainly, but dodged from leaf to leaf to avoid her searching gaze. When they did reveal themselves to her, she was sitting at her knitting in a little arbor outside the garden gate. They appeared as six little men dressed in green, one of whom put his hands over Anne's eyes. She felt a pricking sensation and could see no more, but felt herself lifted through the air. When her eyes were opened again, she found herself in Fairyland, surrounded by gorgeous temples and palaces of gold and silver. Magnificently dressed people walked or danced in splendid gardens or rested beneath flowery arbors. Anne, too, was dressed in the finest clothes and now discovered the inhabitants were of normal human size. She was gloriously happy here, especially when the most handsome of her guides took her to be his lover; but, for some reason, this met with a hostile reaction from the other five spirits, who broke in upon their love-making. One of them put his hands over her eyes again, she was whirled up in the air with a loud humming sound, and, on regaining her sight, found herself lying in the arbor by the garden gate, surrounded by anxious friends.
The first person Anne healed with her new-found powers was her mistress, and when her skill became known, people came to her for cures from Land's End to London. She also became famous for her predictions, but these attracted too much attention in the wrong places: she was arrested on a charge of witchcraft and thrown into prison with orders that she was not to be fed. But although Anne never returned to the Otherworld, the fairies were constantly with her in invisible form, and sustained her with magical food: certainly she was released after a year in good health, and from then on refused –- with good reason – to speak to anyone about her experiences.
The famous Irish fairy doctor, Biddy Early from Clare, also battled with the authorities. Biddy had grown up on a farm in the 19th century where she saw and played with fairies as a child. When she was older, they taught her how to use wild herbs for healing and magic. At first, Biddy only used her skills to help her family and livestock on their farm, but soon neighbors and friends were queuing up for her services. Before long, her reputation as a wise woman and healer spread throughout the west of Ireland, and Biddy found herself in a lifelong feud with the local priest, whom she usually managed to outwit.
Ultimately the Church authorities were unsuccessful in their attempts to banish the fairy doctors. The less visible ones practiced their art quietly in country villages, where the local people found them to be invaluable in times of need. The scientific revolution was more successful, banishing not so much the healers but the fairies themselves from the modern world-view. Paradoxically, it was a man of the church, Bishop Richard Corbet, who composed the fairies’ requiem:
Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they;
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanliness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?