Celtic Folklore


  • Lizanne Henderson and Edward J Cowan. Scottish Fairy Belief. Tuckwell Press, 2000.
  • Ann Ross. Folklore of the Scottish Highlands. Tempus, 2000.
  • Ann Ross. Folklore of Wales. Tempus, 2001.
  • Bob Curran. The Dark Spirit: Sinister portraits from Celtic Folklore. Cassell, 2001.

The book by Henderson and Cowan is the first academic study of British fairy lore for quite a while, and they draw on folklore, ballads and other literary sources and the records of Scottish witch trials to work a portrait of a belief system which has always existed on the fringes of memory. They reject attempts, either occultist or rationalist to the argue what fairies 'really' were, concentrating on the beliefs held about them, and what the meaning of those beliefs might have been. In particular they argue, contrary to previous writers who have treated it as peripheral, that the fairy belief was central to the testimony produced at the Scottish witch trials, which mark the new Protestantism's demonisation of the supernatural lore of the folk.

They devote special attention to the role of the Rev Robert Kirk in the revival of the fairy tradition. Kirk was close to the circle of Cambridge neo-Platonists such as Henry More, Robert Glanville, Robert Boyle, Richard Baxter etc, who martialed evidences of supernatural to challenge what they saw as they atheistic 'new philosophy' of Hobbs and Descartes. Beliefs which a previous generation of Puritans had rejected as 'Romish superstition', were relegitimised in this ideological struggle, as was to occur a couple of centuries later in psychical research's struggle against the rationalism and modernity of its own age.

Henderson and Cowan seem to suggest that Kirk was basing his views more centrally on genuine folk tradition, rather than elite occultism than is usually thought, though I am not entirely convinced by this. They examine the various folk explanations from euhemist notions of memories of race of pygmies, usually identified with the Picts (though the notion that the Picts were small people has no truth), through the identification with the dead, or with intermediate angels. In virtually all the traditions the fairies were liminal creatures, existing on the borderline between night and day, matter and spirit, habitat and wilderness, good and evil. From the times of Chaucer onwards, they were always creatures of the times just gone by, inhabitants of lost arcadia which never existed in actual time.

 If there is an overarching meaning to the fairies, it was that they represented the forces of the world which had control over people, but over which people had no control. In the final chapter Henderson and Cowan note the survival of the fairy belief transformed into beliefs about aliens and abductions. Had they studied the modern folklore more deeply, they would have seen than devotes of this modern lore have as many disputes as anyone in the 1500-1750 period did over fairies. If Henderson and Cowan's study is an example of the growing academic interest in formerly neglected aspects of 'visions and beliefs', the books by Ann Ross represent a very old fashioned approach to folklore, located in an a historical rural idyll. For example not is there no discussion of any modern folklore in her books, the one on Wales says nothing of the folklore of the miners, steelworkers and chapel folk of the past couple of centuries. Instead folklore is reduced to a discussion of the dead customs of a dead agrarian society.

Lurking behind this is the sort of Romantic Celtophile nationalism that gets much of this kind of folklore a bad name. Is there not also something of the rather pernicious ruralism here, which sees agrarian enclaves as the last refuge of the 'authentic folk and which regards the 90% of the people who live in towns and cities as an unauthentic alien intrusion? There is also something of this Celtic particularism in Dr. Curran's book, which is an attempt to trace Celtic roots, in a variety of folk stories which range to in date from the early Middle Ages to the first years of the last century. While in some cases there may be some merit in this approach, when it comes to modern American stories the connection grows dim.

The best one can say is that they reflect general European folk beliefs of uncertain provenance. One story which might interest Forteans is that of that of 'Beautiful Nell' Cropsey who is said to have to disappeared from her North Carolina home in November 1901. Though this turns into a murder case after her body is found, the story told here still looks like yet another variant of the Ambrose Bierce-inspired David Lang/Oliver Larch cycle of folk tales. As no sources are given its not possible to say whether this relates to actual event with a folkloric accretion, or a complete work of fiction.  -- Peter Rogerson.

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