Alex Massie

Dancing for the Queen of the Fairies

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Appropriately enough - this being Halloween don't you know- Slate has this week been running a series of dispatches from my own native heath (Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here). Kate Bolick asks, essentially, why are there so many haunted castles and ghostly apparitions in Scotland?

Think what you want. I'm not here to convert you. Either you believe in ghosts or you don't, and if you don't—well, it's probably because you haven't seen one. They say the best believers are those who began as skeptics.

Take Bella Beck (not her real name; she asked that I not use it), a suitably matter-of-fact academic at the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies. The week before I flew to Scotland to look at ghosts—for reasons I'll get to in a moment—I'd e-mailed her to ask why, when casting around for haunted castles and houses to visit, I had 300 to choose from. Wasn't this excessive? Were there only 10—or even 100!—I'd have chalked it up to tourism. But 300 for a country roughly the size of Maine seemed to me revelatory. What does such a glut of supernatural sites mean?

Well, one's tempted to suggest that the prevalence of paranormal activity in Scotland is indeed linked to visitors' willingness to spend time and, more importantly, cash searching for spooks and gouls and goblins and fairies (with, naturally, the obligatory hunt for the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots).

And yet, and yet...

Though this isn't really my field, perhaps there is something there after all. Certainly, it is hard to overstate the extent to which the supernatural informs Scottish culture. I suspect climate has something to do with it; a Scottish winter can be a grim experience even today. Months of short days, sleet, arctic winds and the kind of cold that seeps into your bones and lingers there can try the soul. Couple that with the propensity for vicious - and often, in fact, capricious - internecine violence that made medieval Scotland a pretty tough place to live and you help create conditions in which a man may be led to believe many things.

Given that life was random, short and brutal - even by the standard of the age - it's not so surprising that the supernatural might gain a following. Fate is a pretty powerful idea, especially when the divide between life and death, success and failure was so very flimsy.   

The supernatural runs through Scottish culture: Scott, Hogg, Stevenson, Buchan... All were fascinated by it. How could they not be? The divide between the natural and the supernatural worlds is just another element of the duality  - and its attendant concerns with identity and history - that is the dominant motif in Scottish literary culture.

As I type this, the Fairies are preparing to dance for the Queen of Elfland at Carterhaugh, the flood plain at the confluence of the Ettrick and Yarrow rivers just half a mile down the hill from where I grew up. They dance for her each Halloween so they may be permitted to remain on earth for another year. These are not, needless to say, the sweet-natured fairies of contemporary popular culture.

You may scoff at this if you like, but the Scottish Borders are a place where it doesn't take much imagination to zip back in time. When the wind whistles and dusk falls you can, if you listen carefully, hear the hoofbeats. That being so, the idea of a crack in time or other elements of the supernatural is not necessarily so fanciful (and frankly no more absurd than the world's organised religions).

Carterhaugh is the setting for one of the most ancient and most famous of Border ballads: the tale of Tam Lin in which:

Janet defiantly travels to Carterhaugh after being warned of the dangers there. She encounters Tam Lin, and they interact among the green leaves. When she returns home she seems ill, and takes little care over her appearance, until one of the knights jokes that she must be pregnant. She proclaims the wonders of the father of the child, and returns to the woods to seek Tam Lin. She asks of his lineage, and he reveals that he knew her when he was a young child, before he was stolen away by the fairies. Fearing sacrifice to hell he informs her with some urgency of how he may be rescued, including dipping in stands of milk and of water. She does so, and the Queen of Fairies reflects on the things she would have done to prevent his escape...

Tam Lin, mind you, is quite unusual amongst the ballads in that it ends quite well. Normally there's heaps of woe and gloom to spread around. Not so much here, though it's stirring stuff all the same and Janet, bles sher, is a tough, resourceful cookie:

  1. Gloomy, gloomy, was the night,

    And eiry was the way,

    As fair Janet, in her green mantle,

    To Miles Cross she did gae.

  2. About the dead hour o the night

    She heard the bridles ring.

    And Janet was as glad o that

    As any earthly thing.

  3. And first gae by the black black steed,

    And then gaed by the brown;

    But fast she gript the milk-white steed,

    And pu'd the rider down.

  4. She pu'd him frae the milk-white steed,

    And loot the bridle fa,

    And up there raise an erlish cry,

    He's 'won amang us a'

  5. They shaped him in fair Janet's arms

    An esk but and an adder;

    She held him fast in every shape,

    To be her bairn's father.

  6. They shaped him in her arms at last

    A mother-naked man,

    She wrapt him in her green mantle,

    And sae her true love wan.

  7. Up then spake the Queen o Fairies,

    Out o a bush o broom:

    She that has borrowd young Tamlane

    Has gotten a stately groom.,

  8. Up then spake the Queen o Fairies,

    Out o a bush o rye :

    She's taen awa the bonniest knight

    In a' my cumpanie.

  9. But had I kennd, Tamlane,' she says,

    A lady wad borrowd thee

    I wad taen out thy twa grey een,

    Put in twa een o tree.

  10. Had I but kennd, Tamlane,' she says,

    Before ye came frae hame,

    I wad taen out your heart o flesh,

    Put in a heart o stane.

  11. Had I but had the wit yestreen

    That I hae coft the day,

    I'd paid my kane seven times to bell

    Ere you'd been won away.'

Great stuff. Whole thing here, in the version Scott cited for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

So, Happy Halloween...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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