Read | Galloway Tales ~ Fairies and plagues

21 April 2020

In 2014, Wigtown Book Festival commissioned the writer Hugh McMillan to compile an alphabetical guide to the living folklore of Dumfries & Galloway, inspired by John McTaggart’s 1824 Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, a work so scurrilous that it was withdrawn within a year of its publication. In the first of a series of extracts, he looks at the surprising role played by fairies and (appropriately) plagues in Galloway’s history.

Away with the Fairies 

“Away with the Fairies” is a term, sometimes derogatory, used to describe someone with an unworldly aspect, or lacking in common sense, practicality or logic, as in “Don’t ask him, he’s away with the Fairies.”

Of course being away with the fairies was once a literal condition in Scotland, and especially in Galloway, one of Scotland’s most fairy infested parts, and the area of the country where, the legends agree, the Fairies held their last strongholds. Infestation is rather a cruel term but it’s certainly true that being away with the fairies was a mixed blessing. George Douglas in his ‘Scottish Fairies and Folktales’ described Annandale as: 

the last Border refuge of those beautiful and capricious beings. Manyold people yet living continue to tell that in the ancient days the fairies danced on the hill … Their visits to the earth were periods of joy and mirth to mankind, rather than of sorrow and apprehension. They played on musical instruments of wonderful sweetness and variety of note, spread unexpected feasts, the supernatural flavour of which overpowered on many occasions the religious scruples of the Presbyterian shepherds.”

Powerful food indeed, to do that. The Corriedale fairies described by Douglas interbred with the locals in a kind of mixed-race Brigadoon-like harmony. There are many other stories too of the fairies’ benevolence to humans, especially in return for kindness. When the Knight of Myrton Sir Godfrey McCulloch received a visit from the King of the Fairies complaining that a sewer he was having built was undermining the fairy kingdom, he immediately diverted it. This was a good move because the King of the Fairies turned up at Godfrey’s execution in Edinburgh and spirited him away just before the axe. The classic story of the brownie Aiken Drum (as popularised in William Nicholson poem The Brownie of Blednoch) is another example of supernatural cooperation between the old folk and the new. Many other sources show the fairies’ dark side, however.  The beautiful fairy girl of Cairnywellan Head near Port Logan, for instance, was a rose complexioned 12 year old who could be seen dancing and singing wildly when fugitives of the Irish rebellion of 1798 were found in the Rhinns and summarily shot or hung by the militia. She disappeared for 50 years but couldn’t contain her glee when the Potato Famine broke out and was soon out in the hills, again, dancing to celebrate the mounting body count. The story of the fairy boy of Borgue can be found in the records of the Kirk Session there. This boy would disappear for days or weeks on end, saying he had been with his “people”. His grandfather sought help from a priest who banished the fairies. Thereafter the boy was shunned in the community, not because he’s been away with the fairies - but because he’d got the help of a catholic.  Trust Dumfries and Galloway to have the only anti- catholic fairy stories. 

Fairy abduction is a classic theme. Changeling stories range all over the region. Unattended cradles, neglectful nannies were all opportunities for the fairies to abduct children and leave in their place spiteful and weird counterparts that you really wouldn’t want to show off to the neighbours. Unlike your real children, however, you could get rid of changelings in a variety of ways, for instance riddling with rowan smoke till they disappear up the chimney, like happened to Tammy McKendrick in Kirkinner. Rowan of course is a tree that wards off evil, the reason you see so many planted in sacred spots or churchyards. My mother used to make rowan jelly and feed it to people she didn’t like but I’m not sure they went away any quicker. 

Adults also disappeared, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes as a dare or punishment. Thomas the Rhymer, stories of whom are found right across the Scottish borders, went partly out of curiosity and partly because he was asked by a very sexy woman. 

A lady that was brisk and bold,
Come riding o'er the ferny brae.
Her skirt was of the grass green silk,
Her mantle of the velvet fine;
At every lock of her horse's mane,
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

(The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer)

 At the Cove of the Grennan near Luce Bay, sailors used to throw bread ashore for the fairies to ensure a good voyage round the Mull of Galloway. There was a fairy cave there which led by a narrow passage all the way through to Clonyard Bay on the west coast. Everyone avoided it but one day a piper was dared to explore it. He strode in with his dog. The sound of the pipes echoed deeper and deeper then stopped. The dog, traumatised and completely bald, finally emerged from the cave at Clonyard Bay but the piper was never seen again. It is said, of course, that on windless nights you can still hear the faint sound of the pipes, which is not unlikely really given the number of pipers and pipe bands in the area. Why just on windless nights? In my experience a good piper can cut through a gale.

Galloway was the last stronghold of the ancient folk, leaving from Burrowhead, though their influence long remained. In A Forgotten Heritage, Hannah Aitken quotes Galloway roadmen who in 1850 refused to cut down an ancient thorn tree to widen the road between Glenluce and Newton Stewart because it was “fairy property”. The tree stood for a further seventy years. Nevertheless the fairies were victims, no less than other endemic species, to agricultural improvements, their green habitats ploughed over, the land preached over by successions of Calvinist ministers, no matter how the fairies occasionally subverted the message.

It’s a sad world without fairies, but are they really gone? Very recently I was in a public house in the centre of the region. I was meeting and interviewing a man who said he had been abducted by aliens. I am very much a fan of beings from outer space and really want them to exist but am sceptical about tales of abduction, believing they’re excuses for other kinds of behaviour, a wee bit like thinking your badly brought up kids are changelings. I was struck, for instance, when looking at the so-called “Bonnybridge Triangle” tales of the 1990s how often the abductees are men coming home late from the pub.

before you hit me with that object
shaped like a toblerone
let me explain.
We only went for a half pint and a whisky
then set off home but somehow lost
two hours on a thirty minute journey.
My mind’s a blank
but Brian clearly saw
Aliens with black eyes and no lips
leading us onto a kind of craft.
I tried to lash out, explain that I was late,
but they used some kind of numbing ray on me:
it put me in this state.
Lorrayne, don’t you see what it explains?
All the times I crawled home with odd abrasions.
Put that down Lorrayne,
don’t you see I have to go again,
for the sake of future generations?

(The X-Files Bonnybridge)

As far as I know, the man I was talking to is the only such abductee in Dumfries and Galloway, although the area is an extremely fertile one for sightings of alien spacecraft or UFOs. He insisted on anonymity but told me he had been taken from his home and returned several days later after various procedures had been made under some form of painless anaesthetic. He seemed to have been away for days, he said, but when he was returned home he found no time had passed at all. If it hadn’t been for the painless anaesthetic, it all sounded very much to me like a visit to the dentist. However, the procedures were described in detail, though I am not allowed to annotate them here, and he seemed quite sincere, if nervous in the telling of his story. The aliens he said were “small and big eyed”.  Time, he said, “seemed to be suspended”. He couldn’t tell “if they were good or bad”. He was returned “unharmed”. 

When he left, and I was finishing my pint, the bar owner beckoned me over and said “He’s away wi the fairies, by the way.” Of course, he was. Small people, morally ambivalent, time standing still; the resonances and echoes are obvious. It’s as though having mastered our geography to such an extent that we can’t believe the fairies could share the same physical space with us, we’ve had to re-invent them in outer space.

Having said that, I’ve met several folk in my travels who’ll swear to having seen fairies, though most are talking about many years ago. An exception is Scott Maxwell, dyker and travelling folk singer, who swears he was taken in the back of a van once to a fairy pool up in the hills near Moffat. “It was two lassies, like. They wouldn’t let me see where I was going, but where I got there it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Moving lights, like the sun in the water really bright, really brilliant but it was a dull day. There was something there, I cannae explain it, still cannae explain it.”


In the 14th Century, the wizard Michael Scott is said to have attempted to rid Dundrennan Abbey of the plague by imprisoning it in a dungeon and leaving it to starve to death. Since a third to half of the population of Europe died in the Great Plague of 1348-9 and its repeat visits in the 15th Century, it was fair enough maybe to take drastic measures. The poet and chronicler Fordun, watching with grim satisfaction as bubonic plague ravaged England, thought it was God’s revenge on them for fifty years of carnage wrought on Scotland.  

It crept over the border, though, and was devastating here, too, despite desperate attempts to stop it. The Packman’s Grave, a mound in Kirkwaugh, Wigtownshire, is supposed to mark the spot where a merchant, bringing cloth inland from a plague ship, was ambushed by locals and buried alive with his goods to prevent the disease from spreading.

My sister reminded me once of the time we looked out of our house in Dumfries and saw men with full chemical warfare suits taking geiger counter readings in Queen St. This must have been 1986 after Chernobyl. The pattern of fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster followed the patterns of the Scottish weather. The greatest concentrations were in the West, particularly on high ground where the poor, peaty soils of upland areas meant that radioactive caesium-137 in the fallout cloud was taken up by plants rather than being locked safely away in the soil itself. Caesium-137 can easily enter the food chain and be taken up by the body. Sheep grazing in the badly affected areas on upland grass especially in the summer months were likely to build up levels of caesium-137 that exceeded the limit of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram of sheep meat set by the European Commission in 1986. 

The Government gave a warning that people should not drink rainwater and after surveys showed that sheep had absorbed so much radiation that they were unfit for human consumption, the sale of sheep was banned across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway. Ten years later radiation was still a problem. In June 1995, Parliament was told that there was still a ban on sheep sales because of radiation on 41 holdings (farms) across Scotland, covering an area of 43,000 hectares. Monitoring restrictions weren’t lifted until June 2010. Farmers were compensated for each sheep tested but the amount paid did not increase as time went on. Money was important but major fears of cancer clusters persist today, as they do in the Dundrennan area over the use of Depleted Uranium shells on the Ministry of Defence testing ground there. Officially Chernobyl was only responsible for 56 deaths worldwide, but the actual figure probably reaches into hundreds of thousands.

When the disaster occurred, I remember talking to Pete Fortune, a gifted and award-winning short story writer and fellow member of Dumfries and Galloway Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In these dark days in the mid 1980s, with the effects of Chernobyl and the constant threat of war breaking out in the Middle East, Pete and I used to meet in the Waverley Hotel in Dumfries, drink frantically, and compare what we’d bought that day for our fall-out shelters- torches, wind-up radios, tins of beans, that kind of thing. One day he announced: “This has turned me into a poet”. He published a terrible piece of doggerel called “Chernobyl Mutton”, then stopped writing completely and remains silent to this day.

I am put in mind of that story by an excellent piece of research written by Kevin Williamson about the events of the summer of 1783, when the Icelandic volcano erupted, sending 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide to mix with water in the atmosphere and form a sulphuric acid cloud which at one point covered a quarter of the surface of the earth. This coincided with Robert Burns’ failure as a farmer, and the onset of his pulmonary problems. In fact two of his younger brothers died in the years following the eruption. It also coincided with his birth as a poet. The several years after 1784 saw him writing in a fever of creativity, producing his best work, and embracing the poetic life. How strange that environmental catastrophe could produce the creative death of one and the birth of another. I have to say that through all these trials, I continued to write steadily, the same sort of drivel as ever.

Filed in: Read, Galloway