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Secret Commonwealth

Source: Folk-lore And Legends Scotland

By MR. ROBERT KIRK, Minister of Aberfoyle, 1691.

The Siths, or Fairies, they call Sluagh Maith, or the Goodpeople, it
would seem, to prevent the dint of their ill attempts (for the Irish used
to bless all they fear harm of), and are said to be of a middle nature
betwixt man and angel, as were demons thought to be of old, of
intelligent studious spirits, and light changeable bodies (like those
called astral), somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best
seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the subtlety of the
spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at
pleasure. Some have bodies or vehicles so spongeous, thin, and defecat
[pure] that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous
liquors, that pierce like pure air and oil; others feed more gross on the
foyson [abundance] or substance of corn and liquors, or corn itself that
grows on the surface of the earth, which these fairies steal away, partly
invisible, partly preying on the grain, as do crows and mice; wherefore
in this same age they are sometimes heard to break bread, strike hammers,
and to do such like services within the little hillocks they most do
haunt; some whereof of old, before the Gospel dispelled Paganism, and in
some barbarous places as yet, enter houses after all are at rest, and set
the kitchens in order, cleansing all the vessels. Such drags go under
the name of Brownies. When we have plenty, they have scarcity at their
homes; and, on the contrary (for they are not empowered to catch as much
prey everywhere as they please), their robberies, notwithstanding,
ofttimes occasion great ricks of corn not to bleed so well (as they call
it), or prove so copious by very far as was expected by the owner.

Their bodies of congealed air are sometimes carried aloft, other whiles
grovel in different shapes, and enter into any cranny or clift of the
earth where air enters, to their ordinary dwellings; the earth being full
of cavities and cells, and there being no place, no creature, but is
supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it
as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole

We then (the more terrestrial kind have now so numerously planted all
countries) do labour for that abstruse people, as well as for ourselves.
Albeit, when several countries were uninhabited by us, these had their
easy tillage above ground, as we now. The print of those furrows do yet
remain to be seen on the shoulders of very high hills, which was done
when the campaign ground was wood and forest.

They remove to other lodgings at the beginning of each quarter of the
year, so traversing till doomsday, being impotent of staying in one
place, and finding some ease by so purning [journeying] and changing
habitations. Their chameleon-like bodies swim in the air near the earth
with bag and baggage; and at such revolution of time, seers, or men of
the second sight (females being seldom so qualified) have very terrifying
encounters with them, even on highways; who, therefore, awfully shun to
travel abroad at these four seasons of the year, and thereby have made it
a custom to this day among the Scottish-Irish to keep church duly every
first Sunday of the quarter to seun or hallow themselves, their corn
and cattle, from the shots and stealth of these wandering tribes; and
many of these superstitious people will not be seen in church again till
the next quarter begins, as if no duty were to be learnt or done by them,
but all the use of worship and sermons were to save them from these
arrows that fly in the dark.

They are distributed in tribes and orders, and have children, nurses,
marriages, deaths, and burials in appearance, even as we (unless they so
do for a mock-show, or to prognosticate some such things among us).

They are clearly seen by these men of the second sight to eat at funerals
[and] banquets. Hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not taste meat at
these meetings, lest they have communion with, or be poisoned by, them.
So are they seen to carry the bier or coffin with the corpse among the
middle-earth men to the grave. Some men of that exalted sight (whether
by art or nature) have told me they have seen at these meetings a double
man, or the shape of some man in two places; that is a super-terranean
and a subterranean inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all
points, whom he, notwithstanding, could easily distinguish one from
another by some secret tokens and operations, and so go and speak to the
man, his neighbour and familiar, passing by the apparition or resemblance
of him. They avouch that every element and different state of being has
animals resembling those of another element; as there be fishes sometimes
at sea resembling monks of late order in all their hoods and dresses; so
as the Roman invention of good and bad demons, and guardian angels
particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant mistake, sprung only
from this original. They call this reflex man a co-walker, every way
like the man, as a twin brother and companion, haunting him as his
shadow, as is oft seen and known among men (resembling the original),
both before and after the original is dead; and was often seen of old to
enter a house, by which the people knew that the person of that likeness
was to visit them within a few days. This copy, echo, or living picture,
goes at last to his own herd. It accompanied that person so long and
frequently for ends best known to itself, whether to guard him from the
secret assaults of some of its own folk, or only as a sportful ape to
counterfeit all his actions. However, the stories of old witches prove
beyond contradiction that all sorts of people, spirits which assume light
airy bodies, or crazed bodies coacted by foreign spirits, seem to have
some pleasure (at least to assuage some pain or melancholy) by frisking
and capering like satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlucky
birds) in their unhallowed synagogues and Sabbaths. If invited and
earnestly required, these companions make themselves known and familiar
to men; otherwise, being in a different state and element, they neither
can nor will easily converse with them. They avouch that a heluo or
great eater has a voracious elve to be his attender, called a joint-eater
or just-halver, feeding on the pith and quintessence of what the man
eats; and that, therefore, he continues lean like a hawk or heron,
notwithstanding his devouring appetite; yet it would seem they convey
that substance elsewhere, for these subterraneans eat but little in their
dwellings, their food being exactly clean, and served up by pleasant
children, like enchanted puppets.

Their houses are called large and fair, and (unless at some odd
occasions) unperceivable by vulgar eyes, like Rachland and other
enchanted islands, having fir lights, continual lamps, and fires, often
seen without fuel to sustain them. Women are yet alive who tell they
were taken away when in childbed to nurse fairy children, a lingering
voracious image of them being left in their place (like their reflection
in a mirror), which (as if it were some insatiable spirit in an assumed
body) made first semblance to devour the meats that it cunningly carried
by, and then left the carcass as if it expired and departed thence by a
natural and common death. The child and fire, with food and all other
necessaries, are set before the nurse how soon she enters, but she
neither perceives any passage out, nor sees what those people do in other
rooms of the lodging. When the child is weaned, the nurse dies, or is
conveyed back, or gets it to her choice to stay there. But if any
superterraneans be so subtle as to practise sleights for procuring the
privacy to any of their mysteries (such as making use of their ointments,
which, as Gyges' ring, make them invisible or nimble, or cast them in a
trance, or alter their shape, or make things appear at a vast distance,
etc.), they smite them without pain, as with a puff of wind, and bereave
them of both the natural and acquired sights in the twinkling of an eye
(both these sights, when once they come, being in the same organ and
inseparable), or they strike them dumb. The tramontanes to this day
place bread, the Bible, or a piece of iron, to save their women at such
times from being thus stolen, and they commonly report that all uncouth,
unknown wights are terrified by nothing earthly so much as cold iron.
They deliver the reason to be that hell lying betwixt the chill tempests
and the firebrands of scalding metals, and iron of the north (hence the
loadstone causes a tendency to that point), by an antipathy thereto,
these odious, far-scenting creatures shrug and fright at all that comes
thence relating to so abhorred a place, whence their torment is either
begun, or feared to come hereafter.

Their apparel and speech is like that of the people and country under
which they live; so are they seen to wear plaids and variegated garments
in the Highlands of Scotland, and suanachs [plaids] therefore in Ireland.
They speak but little, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough.
The very devils conjured in any country do answer in the language of the
place; yet sometimes the subterraneans speak more distinctly than at
other times. Their women are said to spin very fine, to dye, to tossue,
and embroider; but whether it be as manual operation of substantial
refined stuffs, with apt and solid instruments, or only curious cobwebs,
unpalpable rainbows, and a phantastic imitation of the actions of more
terrestrial mortals, since it transcended all the senses of the seer to
discern whether, I leave to conjecture as I found it.

Their men travel much abroad, either presaging or aping the dismal and
tragical actions of some amongst us; and have also many disastrous doings
of their own, as convocations, fighting, gashes, wounds, and burials,
both in the earth and air. They live much longer than we; yet die at
last, or [at] least vanish from that state. 'Tis one of their tenets
that nothing perisheth, but (as the sun and year) everything goes in a
circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its
revolutions; as 'tis another, that every body in the creation moves
(which is a sort of life); and that nothing moves but has another animal
moving on it; and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscle that's capable
of being a receptacle of life.

They are said to have aristocratical rulers and laws, but no discernible
religion, love, or devotion towards God, the blessed Maker of all: they
disappear whenever they hear His name invoked, or the name of Jesus (at
which all do bow willingly, or by constraint, that dwell above or
beneath, within the earth), (Philip, ii. 10); nor can they act ought at
that time after hearing of that sacred name. The Taiblsdear or seer,
that corresponds with this kind of familiars, can bring them with a spell
to appear to himself or others when he pleases, as readily as Endor Witch
did those of her own kind. He tells they are ever readiest to go on
hurtful errands, but seldom will be the messengers of great good to men.
He is not terrified with their sight when he calls them, but seeing them
in a surprise (as often as he does) frights him extremely, and glad would
he be quit of such, for the hideous spectacles seen among them; as the
torturing of some wight, earnest, ghostly, staring looks, skirmishes, and
the like. They do not all the harm which appearingly they have power to
do; nor are they perceived to be in great pain, save that they are
usually silent and sullen. They are said to have many pleasant toyish
books; but the operation of these pieces only appears in some paroxysms
of antic, corybantic jollity, as if ravished and prompted by a new spirit
entering into them at that instant, lighter and merrier than their own.
Other books they have of involved, abstruse sense, much like the
Rosurcian [Rosicrucian] style. They have nothing of the Bible, save
collected parcels for charms and counter-charms; not to defend themselves
withal, but to operate on other animals, for they are a people
invulnerable by our weapons, and albeit werewolves' and witches' true
bodies are (by the union of the spirit of nature that runs through all
echoing and doubling the blow towards another) wounded at home, when the
astral assumed bodies are stricken elsewhere--as the strings of a second
harp, tuned to a unison, sound, though only one be struck,--yet these
people have not a second, or so gross a body at all, to be so pierced;
but as air which when divided unites again; or if they feel pain by a
blow, they are better physicians than we, and quickly cure. They are not
subject to sore sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain period,
all about an age. Some say their continual sadness is because of their
pendulous state (like those men, Luke xiii. 2-6), as uncertain what at
the last revolution will become of them, when they are locked up into an
unchangeable condition; and if they have any frolic fits of mirth, 'tis
as the constrained grinning of a mort-head [death's-head], or rather as
acted on a stage, and moved by another, ther [than?] cordially coming of
themselves. But other men of the second sight, being illiterate, and
unwary in their observations, learn from [differ from] those; one
averring those subterranean people to be departed souls, attending a
while in this inferior state, and clothed with bodies procured through
their alms-deeds in this life; fluid, active, ethereal vehicles to hold
them that they may not scatter nor wander, and be lost in the totum, or
their first nothing; but if any were so impious as to have given no alms,
they say, when the souls of such do depart, they sleep in an inactive
state till they resume the terrestrial bodies again; others, that what
the low-country Scotch call a wraith, and the Irish taibhse, or death's
messenger (appearing sometimes as a little rough dog, and if crossed and
conjured in time, will be pacified by the death of any other creature
instead of the sick man), is only exuvious fumes of the man approaching
death, exhaled and congealed into a various likeness (as ships and armies
are sometimes shaped in the air), and called astral bodies, agitated as
wild-fire with wind, and are neither souls nor counterfeiting spirits;
yet not a few avouch (as is said) that surely these are a numerous people
by themselves, having their own politics, which diversities of judgment
may occasion several inconsonancies in this rehearsal, after the
narrowest scrutiny made about it.

Their weapons are most-what solid earthly bodies, nothing of iron, but
much of stone, like to yellow soft flint spa, shaped like a barbed
arrowhead, but flung like a dart, with great force. These arms (cut by
art and tools, it seems, beyond human) have somewhat of the nature of
thunderbolt subtlety, and mortally wounding the vital parts without
breaking the skin; of which wounds I have observed in beasts, and felt
them with my hands. They are not as infallible Benjamites, hitting at a
hair's-breadth; nor are they wholly unvanquishable, at least in

The men of the second sight do not discover strange things when asked,
but at fits and raptures, as if inspired with some genius at that
instant, which before did work in or about them. Thus I have frequently
spoken to one of them, who in his transport told me he cut the body of
one of those people in two with his iron weapon, and so escaped this
onset, yet he saw nothing left behind of that appearing divided; at other
times he outwrested [wrestled?] some of them. His neighbours often
perceived this man to disappear at a certain place, and about an hour
after to become visible, and discover himself near a bow-shot from the
first place. It was in that place where he became invisible, said he,
that the subterraneans did encounter and combat with him. Those who are
unseund, or unsanctified (called fey), are said to be pierced or
wounded with those people's weapons, which makes them do somewhat very
unlike their former practice, causing a sudden alteration, yet the cause
thereof unperceivable at present; nor have they power (either they cannot
make use of their natural powers, or asked not the heavenly aid) to
escape the blow impendent. A man of the second sight perceived a person
standing by him (sound to other's view) wholly gored in blood, and he
(amazed like) bid him instantly flee. The whole man laughed at his
airt [notice] and warning, since there was no appearance of danger. He
had scarce contracted his lips from laughter when unexpectedly his
enemies leaped in at his side and stabbed him with their weapons. They
also pierce cows or other animals, usually said to be Elf-shot, whose
purest substance (if they die) these subterraneans take to live on, viz.
the aerial and ethereal parts, the most spirituous matter for prolonging
of life, such as aquavitae (moderately taken) is amongst liquors, leaving
the terrestrial behind. The cure of such hurts is only for a man to find
out the hole with his finger, as if the spirits flowing from a man's warm
hand were antidote sufficient against their poisoned darts.

As birds, as beasts, whose bodies are much used to the change of the free
and open air, foresee storms, so those invisible people are more
sagacious to understand by the books of nature things to come, than we,
who are pestered with the grossest dregs of all elementary mixtures, and
have our purer spirits choked by them. The deer scents out a man and
powder (though a late invention) at a great distance; a hungry hunter,
bread; and the raven, a carrion; their brains, being long clarified by
the high and subtle air, will observe a very small change in a trice.
Thus a man of the second sight, perceiving the operations of these
forecasting invisible people among us (indulged through a stupendous
providence to give warnings of some remarkable events, either in the air,
earth, or waters), told he saw a winding shroud creeping on a walking
healthful person's leg till it came to the knee, and afterwards it came
up to the middle, then to the shoulders, and at last over the head, which
was visible to no other person. And by observing the spaces of time
betwixt the several stages, he easily guessed how long the man was to
live who wore the shroud; for when it approached the head, he told that
such a person was ripe for the grave.

There be many places called fairy-hills, which the mountain people think
impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from
them, superstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell
there. And for that end (say they) a mole or mound was dedicate beside
every churchyard to receive the souls till their adjacent bodies arise,
and so became as a fairy-hill; they using bodies of air when called
abroad. They also affirm those creatures that move invisibly in a house,
and cast huge great stones, but do no much hurt, because counter-wrought
by some more courteous and charitable spirits that are everywhere ready
to defend men (Dan. x. 13), to be souls that have not attained their
rest, through a vehement desire of revealing a murder or notable injury
done or received, or a treasure that was forgot in their lifetime on
earth, which, when disclosed to a conjuror alone, the ghost quite

In the next country to that of my former residence, about the year 1676,
when there was some scarcity of grain, a marvellous illapse and vision
strongly struck the imagination of two women in one night, living at a
good distance from one another, about a treasure hid in a hill called
Sith-bruthach, or fairy-hill. The appearance of a treasure was first
represented to the fancy, and then an audible voice named the place where
it was to their awaking senses. Whereupon both rose, and meeting
accidentally at the place, discovered their design; and jointly digging,
found a vessel as large as a Scottish peck full of small pieces of good
money, of ancient coin; and halving betwixt them, they sold in dishfuls
for dishfuls of meal to the country people. Very many of undoubted
credit saw and had of the coin to this day. But whether it was a good or
bad angel, one of the subterranean people, or the restless soul of him
who hid it, that discovered it, and to what end it was done, I leave to
the examination of others.

These subterraneans have controversies, doubts, disputes, feuds, and
siding of parties; there being some ignorance in all creatures, and the
vastest created intelligences not compassing all things. As to vice and
sin, whatever their own laws be, sure according to ours, and equity,
natural, civil, and revealed, they transgress and commit acts of
injustice and sin by what is above said, as to their stealing of nurses
to their children, and that other sort of plaginism in catching our
children away (may seem to heir some estate in those invisible dominions)
which never return. For swearing and intemperance, they are not observed
so subject to those irregularities, as to envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying,
and dissimulation.

As our religion obliges us not to make a peremptory and curious search
into these abstrusenesses, so the histories of all ages give as many
plain examples of extraordinary occurrences as make a modest inquiry not
contemptible. How much is written of pigmies, fairies, nymphs, syrens,
apparitions, which though not the tenth part true, yet could not spring
of nothing; even English authors relate [of] Barry Island, in
Glamorganshire, that laying your ear into a cleft of the rocks, blowing
of bellows, striking of hammers, clashing of armour, filing of iron, will
be heard distinctly ever since Merlin enchanted those subterranean wights
to a solid manual forging of arms to Aurelius Ambrosius and his Britons,
till he returned; which Merlin being killed in a battle, and not coming
to loose the knot, these active vulcans are there tied to a perpetual

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