Fairies appear in a lot of the folklore of the United Kingdom. But they crop up a lot in tales from Northumberland. It’s hardly surprising – this is a wild and often mysterious part of the country. It borders Scotland and its turbulent history marks it as a contested county. Where better for fairies to settle than one of the ‘in between’ places?
June is the month of Midsummer, often associated with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his tale of mischievous fairies, Shakespeare definitely captured their whimsical – and dangerous – side. So it seemed only right that June became Fairy Folklore Month here on the blog and podcast!
So this week, travel back in time with me! We’re going to the days before modern medicine, the internal combustion engine, and widespread literacy.
As ever, hit play to listen to the podcast or keep reading below!
What happened when a midwife met the fairies?
These two stories were related by M.A. Richardson in 1846, in his Table Book. According to him, a few centuries ago, a midwife lived near Elsdon in Northumberland. Known locally as ‘Howdie’, people knew of her skills for miles around. She never lacked work.
One night a messenger on horseback woke her up. His mistress needed her urgent assistance, would she come and help? Howdie agreed although the messenger produced a blindfold for her to wear on the journey.
Still, Howdie knew that the lords sometimes got servants into trouble. Perhaps discretion was required. She could never guess that she’d meet a fairy instead.
The rider took her on the strange journey and he led her into a cottage. Howdie finally removed the blindfold. A beautiful lady lay on a bed in a warm but unfamiliar room.
Howdie set aside the blindfold and got to work.
She delivered the baby, and an old woman entered the room. She handed over a box of ointment and instructed Howdie to anoint the baby’s eyes. But the old woman was insistent that the ointment should not touch Howdie’s eyes.
After the blindfolded journey, Howdie was already used to the strangeness of the case. She agreed.
Unfortunately, after anointing the baby’s eyes, her own left eye began to water.
Without thinking, Howdie rubbed at it to shift the irritant.
The scene changed. Out of one eye, she still saw the cottage and the woman now holding a baby. Out of the other, she saw the rough stone walls of a cave. The beautiful woman and baby were now ugly and misshapen. She’d delivered a fairy child!
Somehow, Howdie kept her composure and the messenger took her home. The fairy father sent her back with plenty of fairy gold. After all, she’d done as they asked.
Howdie thought little of it for the next few days, being kept busy with delivering and caring for newborns in the surrounding area. But a short while later, she went to the local market. She saw the old woman stealing butter from each stall. Howdie tried to pretend she hadn’t seen her. But as the crone got closer, she realised Howdie recognised her.
The old woman stormed up to Howdie.
“Which eye can you see me with?” she asked.
Howdie pointed to her left eye, seeing no reason to lie.
The old fairy blew into her face. “Take that!”
Howdie lost the sight in her left eye, and remained blind for the rest of her life.
But Howdie wasn’t the only health professional to encounter the fairies.
In a similar tale, a country doctor accompanied a strange messenger to a remote part of the hills. The messenger gave the doctor a jar of ointment and asked him to rub it on his eyes.
He did so and a magnificent door appeared in the side of the hill. Unlike Howdie, the doctor knew he was about to meet a fairy. Who else would live in such a place?
And he’d heard such tales of fairy gold.
The messenger led him inside, where the doctor found a lavish hall. The patient lay on a mound of furs, surrounded by opulence as far as the doctor could see. He marvelled at such wealth while he attended to his patient.
After delivering the baby, he left the hall. The messenger told him to anoint his eyes a second time.
This time, the doctor only rubbed the ointment on one eye. He mimed rubbing it on his other eye. Having seen such splendour, the doctor wanted to be able to enter the fairy world again.
His quest was not to be.
A few days later, he visited the market in Morpeth to buy supplies. The fairy husband pranced around, stealing corn and other items from the stalls. The doctor challenged him, forgetting no one else could see him. The fairy blew into his face, striking the doctor blind in both eyes.
Fairies aren’t all sweetness and light.
There are other tales, or indeed variations of these two, all over the country. In all of them, fairy ointment becomes the key to seeing the fairies, either in their true form or at all.
In those stories in which the ointment reveals their true form, the magical salve acts as a way to remove a fairy’s ‘glamour’.
Unlike the modern meaning of the word, the original meaning of ‘glamour’ meant to bewitch a person. You could adopt a ‘glamour’ to fool someone into seeing something, or someone, else. Applying the ointment grants the ability to see through the glamour.
The other stories use the ointment to see the fairies in the first place. Implying they’re invisible to humans, only the salve grants the ability to see them. The doctor needs to use it in order to help them, but applying more seems to ‘cancel out’ the effect.
In Howdie’s case, it’s simply an accident. She never intends to apply the ointment herself. In the doctor’s case, he deliberately ignores the instruction.
The fairies of folklore are rarely the cuddly, cute variety that flit around granting wishes. That version dates to the Victorian era, when fairies were conflated with cherubs and they became delightful creatures associated with childhood.
In earlier centuries fairies were tricksters, never granting wishes unless there was something in it for them. They might leave out food, and those who ate it were doomed to stay in the fairy realm forever.
This is a common motif within mythology too. Witness Persephone, doomed to spend six months of the year in the underworld after eating pomegranate seeds. I’ve even used it myself in The Stolen Ghosts, using it to trap a mortal teenager in the World Beyond.
Fairies might grant your wish – and bind you into some kind of deal with them. Worse – they might steal your child and leave a changeling in its place.
Either way, you’re better off keeping out of their way!
Over to you! Have you heard any local folk tales relating to fairies? Share them in the comments below!
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Richardson, M.A. (1846), The local historian’s table book, of remarkable occurrences, historical facts, traditions, legendary and descriptive ballads [&c.] connected with the counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland and Durham. Legendary division, Volume 3, London: J.R. Smith (aff link).
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