One of the ironies of this particular blogpost, is that a few days ago, I decided the next post I would put up here would be this very one - The Fairy Boy of Leith - and as I am currently on holiday in the Blue Mountains (hence why I have not posted up anything since Tuesday) I thought I'd find time tonight to repost this piece I did in 2011. And TODAY, of all days in my life, I actually found Richard Bovet's Pandaæonium in a book shop, not even thinking it was even available in print at all. I am amazed! My friend Ronan Coghlan told me that Oakmagic Publications reported on their website that they were going to print this tome that was originally published in 1684, so I emailed them about it, and they got back to me saying that they were not going to re-publish it after all. I thought I would never see the book, and even thought the other day that I should make it a life-time goal to get it out into the world, until I realised it already was. I'm happy enough with that.
The Fairy Boy of Leith
I’ve been reading up on faery sightings, encounters and stories for over a year now. I’ve had a story idea for many years involving adventuring mortals with faeries and faeryland. The story started in the mid 90’s while I was at high school, and I even wrote an excerpt for a Year 12 English short story assignment. Since then the story has evolved and grown first, and for a few years it was to be a trilogy of books but then I was not sure what to write. Only a few months ago now, I decided to compile it into one book in three parts instead. I have not written any of the story yet, instead I have taken a lot of notes and scenes are stuck in my head – which I need to get written down.
I think of the adventures conducted in the Alan Garner books – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath, and want to re-read them because of the style of journey and interaction within fairyland. But within my research of faery encounters and disappearances, I’ve come across one story more than once in my collection of folklore books – the story of the fairy boy of Leith.
I have personally spent a little time in Edinburgh, and lived near Leith (which I believe is famous for the location of ‘Trainspotting’) in Grantham with my friends Philip and Marianne back in April/May 2006. I also went to Calton Hill during the Edinburgh Fire Festival as I mentioned in this post here. I did not know about this tale then, but Calton Hill fascinated me then.
The story features a young boy – I think about 10, who lived in Leith and reported to Captain George Burton that he would go to Calton Hill every Thursday night and play a drum for the fairies. The account was recorded in Richard Bovet’s Pandæmonium or the Devil’s Cloister back in 1684 which was a book about devilry and folklore of Scotland. I found the account from Pandæmonium online.
THE FAIRY BOY OF LEITH.
THE worthy Captain George Burton communicated to Richard Bovet, gentleman, author of the interesting work entitled Pandæmonium, or the Devil's Cloister Opened, the following singular account of a lad called the Fairy Boy of Leith, who, it seems, acted as a drummer to the elves, who weekly held rendezvous in the Calton Hill, near Edinburgh.
"About fifteen years since, having business that detained me for some time at Leith, which is near Edinburgh, in the kingdom of Scotland, I often met some of my acquaintance at a certain house there, where we used to drink a glass of wine for our refection; the woman which kept the house was of honest reputation among the neighbours, which made me give the more attention to what she told me one day about a fairy boy (as they called him), who lived about that town. She had given me so strange an account of him that I desired her I might see him the first opportunity, which she promised; and not long after, passing that way, she told me there was the fairy boy but a little before I came by; and, casting her eye into the street, said, Look you, sir, yonder he is at play with those other boys; and, designing him to me, I went, and, by smooth words, and a piece of money, got him to come into the house with me; where, in the presence of divers people, I demanded of him several astrological questions, which he answered with great subtlety; and, through all his discourse, carried it with a cunning much above his years, which seemed not to exceed ten or eleven.
"He seemed to make a motion like drumming upon the table with his fingers, upon which I asked him whether he could beat a drum? To which he replied, Yes, sir, as well as any man in Scotland; for every Thursday night I beat all points to a sort of people that used to meet under yonder hill (pointing to the great hill between Edenborough and Leith.) How, boy? quoth I, what company have you there?
[paragraph continues] There are, sir, said he, a great company both of men and women, and they are entertained with many sorts of musick, besides my drum; they have, besides, plenty of variety of meats and wine, and many times we are carried into France or Holland in a night, and return again, and whilst we are there we enjoy all the pleasures the country doth afford. I demanded of him how they got under that hill? To which he replied that there was a great pair of gates that opened to them, though they were invisible to others; and that within there were brave large rooms, as well accommodated as most in Scotland. I then asked him how I should know what he said to be true? Upon which he told me he would read my fortune, saying I should have two wives, and that he saw the forms of them sitting on my shoulders; that both would be very handsome women. As he was thus speaking, a woman of the neighbourhood, coming into the room, demanded of him what her fortune should be? He told her that she had two bastards before she was married, which put her in such a rage that she desired not to hear the rest. "The woman of the house told me that all the people in Scotland could not keep him from the rendezvous on Thursday night; upon which, by promising him some more money, I got a promise of him to meet me at the same place, in the afternoon, the Thursday following, and so dismist him at that time. The boy came again, at the place and time appointed, and I had prevailed with some friends to continue with me, if possible, to prevent his moving that night.
[paragraph continues] He was placed between us, and answered many questions, until, about eleven of the clock, he was got away unperceived by the company; but I, suddenly missing him, hasted to the door, and took hold of him, and so returned him into the same room; we all watched him, and, of a sudden, he was again got out of doors; I followed him close, and he made a noise in the street as if he had been set upon; but from that time I could never see him.
~ GEORGE BURTON.
I find these kind of stories extremely fascinating and wonder how much truth is behind it. The more I read from past accounts of the occult and demonic events, the more I believe that the account recorded was either fabricated or distorted completely because of the author’s superstition.
How much of this fairy boy tale is true? Calton Hill is a place I have been to twice – once on a cold, dark, damp May Day Eve during a fierce and fiery festival, and then on a sunny noon day, perfect for a picnic and workers spending time out of the office to eat there. I picture how Calton Hill would have looked in the 1660s, when the fairy boy would have been there – there was no folly of a Greek Temple, and probably no other monuments, just a plain hill surrounded by countryside or 17th century cottages and shacks. Today, it’s just a hill covered in monuments in the middle of the city, with excellent views of Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat.
And those invisible fairy gates! How fascinating it would be to see those. I am so curious as to know how it might have looked – Calton Hill has a ‘fairy hill’ look to it, nice and rounded – which is why I am not surprised it was used for fairy banquets. However, these do inspire the writer in me - here are some other Fairy Boy stories....
The Fairy Boy of Borgue
In the village of Borgue there lived a young boy who the locals suspected had a relationship with the faeries. He would disappear for days at a time and they all believed that he was spending time with them. In Katherine Briggs 'The Fairies in Tradition and Literature' she says the Kirk Session in Borgue records the questioning of the Boy of Borgue, who claimed intercourse with the fairies. Other accounts say the boy never spoke of the matter to either confirm or deny it. His grandfather sought help from a Catholic priest who gave him a wooden cross to place around the boy's neck. Once the cross was in place the boy did not wander off to visit the faerie folk again, however, according to the story his grandfather was punished by being shunned by his Kirk. Apparently they did not like faeries much but as evil as they can be they would have accepted the situation, but to have dealings with a papist, that they would not forgive.
The Fairy Boy of Culzean
Hundreds of years ago the Laird of Co' who owned Culzean castle in Ayrshire was visited by a small boy with a tiny wooden cup. He came to beg for some ale saying that it was for his sick mother, the Laird then asked his butler to fill the boys cup. To the butlers astonishment the half the barrel failed to fill the boys cup and he was loathed to open another barrel but the laird ordered him to fill the cup no matter how much ale was spent so the butler opened another barrel and just as the first drop landed the cup was full, the boy thanked the laird and went on his way. Some years later during wars in Flanders the laird was caught and taken prisoner and sentenced to death. The night before he was to be executed the door of his dungeon swung open and the boy appeared saying, "Laird o' Co', rise an go". Once outside the little boy (who was a fairy) took the laird apon his shoulders and whisked him back to his castle in a flash, a he set the laird down on the ground he said" Ae guid turn deserves another. Tak ye that for being sae kind to my auld mither".
Robert Kirk’s fascination for the 'subterranean folk 'was indeed decadent – how inescapable! It would be interesting to be with George Burton that night to really witness what really happened, but how would I view it as a modern girl with no superstitious inclinations, and a knowledge of human behaviour? Superstition of the past certainly distorts what we learn today of faery encounters and other forteana of the past. Perhaps I should not be so harsh on our forefathers.
|The Fairy Boy of Leith - From 'Folklore, Myths and |
Legends of Britain' - Reader's Digest, 1973
|Calton Hill today, as seen from a kite|