For this week’s installment, we will be traveling to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea to explore the local flavor of fairy lore. Unlike the literary tales of Housman or d’Aulnoy, the following examples are transcribed from an oral tradition, and were originally collected for Manx Fairy Tales (1911) by Sophia Morrison (1859-1917). You will find two stories which serve as warnings to those who may be unmindful, or even disrespectful, of the fair folk. And, for those of you who may suddenly find yourself lost in a grey mist, we’ve added a coda designed to give comfort and courage.
Billy Beg, Tom Beg and the Fairies
Not far from Dalby, Billy Beg and Tom Beg, two humpback cobblers, lived together on a lonely croft. Billy Beg was sharper and cleverer than Tom Beg, who was always at his command. One day Billy Beg gave Tom a staff, and quoth he:
“Tom Beg, go to the mountain and fetch home the white sheep.”
Tom Beg took the staff and went to the mountain, but he could not find the white sheep. At last, when he was far from home and dusk was coming on, he began to think that he had best go back. The night was fine, and stars and a small crescent moon were in the sky. No sound was to be heard but the curlew’s sharp whistle. Tom was hastening home, and had almost reached Glen Rushen, when a grey mist gathered and he lost his way. But it was not long before the mist cleared, and Tom Beg found himself in a green glen such as he had never seen before, though he thought he knew every glen within five miles of him, for he was born and reared in the neighbourhood. He was marvelling and wondering where he could be, when he heard a far-away sound drawing nearer to him.
“Aw,” said he to himself, “there’s more than myself afoot on the mountains to-night; I’ll have company.”
The sound grew louder. First, it was like the humming of bees, then like the rushing of Glen Meay waterfall, and last it was like the marching and the murmur of a crowd. It was the fairy host. Of a sudden the glen was full of fine horses and of Little People riding on them, with the lights on their red caps, shining like the stars above, and making the night as bright as day. There was the blowing of horns, the waving of flags, the playing of music, and the barking of many little dogs. Tom Beg thought that he had never seen anything so splendid as all he saw there. In the midst of the drilling and dancing and singing one of them spied Tom, and then Tom saw coming towards him the grandest Little Man he had ever set eyes upon, dressed in gold and silver, and silk shining like a raven’s wing.
“It is a bad time you have chosen to come this way,” said the Little Man, who was the king.
“Yes; but it is not here that I’m wishing to be though,” said Tom.
Then said the king: “Are you one of us to-night, Tom?”
“I am surely,” said Tom.
“Then,” said the king, “it will be your duty to take the password. You must stand at the foot of the glen, and as each regiment goes by, you must take the password: it is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”
“I’ll do that with a heart and a half,” said Tom.
At daybreak the fiddlers took up their fiddles, the Fairy army set itself in order, the fiddlers played before them out of the glen, and sweet that music was. Each regiment gave the password to Tom as it went by—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; and last of all came the king, and he, too, gave it—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Then he called in Manx to one of his men:
‘Take the hump from this fellow’s back,” and before the words were out of his mouth the hump was whisked off Tom Beg’s back and thrown into the hedge. How proud now was Tom, who so found himself the straightest man in the Isle of Mann! He went down the mountain and came home early in the morning with light heart and eager step. Billy Beg wondered greatly when he saw Tom Beg so straight and strong, and when Tom Beg had rested and refreshed himself he told his story: how he had met the Fairies who came every night to Glen Rushen to drill.
The next night Billy Beg set off along the mountain road and came at last to the green glen. About midnight he heard the trampling of horses, the lashing of whips, the barking of dogs, and a great hullabaloo, and, behold, the Fairies and their king, their dogs and their horses, all at drill in the glen as Tom Beg had said.
When they saw the humpback they all stopped, and one came forward and very crossly asked his business.
“I am one of Yourselves for the night, and should be glad to do you some service,” said Billy Beg.
So he was set to take the password—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And at daybreak the King said: “It’s time for us to be off,” and up came regiment after regiment giving Billy Beg the password—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Last of all came the king with his men, and gave the password also—“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says Billy Beg, thinking himself clever. Then there was a great outcry.
“Get the hump that was taken off that fellow’s back last night and put it on this man’s back,” said the King, with flashing eyes, pointing to the hump that lay under the hedge.
Before the words were well out of his mouth the hump was clapt on to Billy Beg’s back.
“Now,” said the King, “be off, and if ever I find you here again, I will clap another hump on to your front!”
And on that they all marched away with one great shout, and left poor Billy Beg standing where they had found him, with a hump growing on each shoulder. And he came home next day dragging one foot after another, with a wizened face and as cross as two sticks, with his two humps on his back, and if they are not off they are there still.
There is a deep dub, or pool, on Ballacoan stream, which the children of Laxey call Nikkesen’s. It is the home of Nyker, the Water Goblin. It has no bottom; and brambles and ferns are growing round it, and fir trees and hazels are hiding it from sight. No child, no grown-up person even, will go near it after dark.
A great many years ago a beautiful girl living at Ballaquine was sent to look for the calves, which had gone astray. She had got as far as Nikkesen’s, when she took a notion that she heard the calves over the river in Johnny Baldoon’s nuts. At once she began to call to them:
“Kebeg! Kebeg! Kebeg!” so loud that you could hear her at Chibber Pherick, Patrick’s Well. The people could hear her calling quite plainly, but, behold, a great mist came and rolled down the valley, and shut it from sight. The people on one side of the valley could hear her voice yet calling through the mist:
“Kebeg! Kebeg! Kebeg!”
Then came a little sweet voice through the mist and the trees in answer:
“Kebeg’s here! Kebeg’s here!”
And she cried: “I’m comin’! I’m comin’!”
And that was all.
The Fairies who live in Nikkesen’s had pulled her in, and carried her to their own home. She was never heard of again.
An Ancient Charm Against the Fairies
Peace of God and peace of man,
Peace of God on Columb-Killey,
On each window and each door,
On every hole admitting moonlight,
On the four corners of the house,
On the place of my rest,
And peace of God on myself.
Introduction: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins
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