Friday, March 12, 2010

Fairy Mounds


Fairy Mounds

By David MacRitchie, F.S.A. Scot.
From The Antiquary: Vol 36, 1900.
Many would reject his conclusions, but this is very interesting! -Pixie

WHEN Thackeray was making his tour through Ireland in 1842, he spent a day in the little town of Louth, and there he made the following entry in his Sketch Book: " In the handsome grounds of the rectory is another spot visited by popular tradition—a fairy's ring; a regular mound of some 30 feet in height, flat and even on the top, and provided with a winding path for the foot passengers to ascend. Some trees grew on the mound, one of which was removed in order to make the walk. But the country people cried out loudly at this desecration, and vowed that the ' little people' had quitted the countryside for ever in consequence." Thackeray, however, was not the first to record the existence of this mound, for Gough, in 1789, had already included "the Fairy mount at Louth" among his Additions to Camden's Britannia. And, earlier still, Thomas Wright had published two views of it in his Louthiana, London, 1748, Book I., Plate XII.

But Thackeray's words may remind visitors to North Wales that a similar mound may be seen at Bala. "The Tomen Bala stands at the northern end of the town. It is apparently formed of clay, is steep and of difficult ascent. In height it is about 30 feet, and in diameter at the top about 50. The Tomen is about the same size as Glendower's Mount on the Dee, which it much resembles in shape. Both belong to that brotherhood of artificial mounds of unknown antiquity found, scattered here and there throughout Europe and the greater part of Asia." So says George Borrow, who further made inquiry of the inn waiter regarding its supposed origin. "What do the people here say of it ?" he asked. “All kind of strange things, your honour." "Do they say who built it?" “Some say the Tylwyth Teg built it, others that it was cast up over a dead king by his people. The truth is, nobody here knows who built it or anything about it, save that it is a wonder." Now, the Tylwyth Teg (literally, " the fair family ") are the Welsh fairies, so that here we have these two similar mounds, one in Wales and one in Leinster, each having a tradition that they were built by the fairies. Mr. A. G. Bradley, in his Highways and Byways in North Wales, speaks of the Tomen of Bala as “the first of a long line of such mounds stretching down the Dee valley, erected by a race forgotten and for purposes unknown." It would be interesting to learn whether a like tradition to those of Bala and Louth lingers around any of these other mounds.

A third example of the same kind of mound exists in western Perthshire, in the Winding Glen of the Stones, otherwise Glen Lyon ; and it, too, has associations that link it with the Tomen of Bala and the Fairy Mount of Louth. It is situated on the farm of Pubil, 4 miles down the glen from the lower or eastern end of Loch Lyon, on the left-hand side of the road as one goes towards Meggernie Castle and Fortingall. The Ordnance Map marks its site by the word "tower," thereby indicating a small circular fort upon its summit. This “Fairy Knowe,"* for so it is called, is not cone-shaped; at any rate when viewed from the west. But its slope on the side next the road is as acute and as suggestive of an artificial origin as that of the Bala "Tomen." The local tradition regarding it was obtained by the present writer from a very old man, a native of the glen, as his forefathers were. “Some say that it was a court-house," he replied, in answer to a question as to its origin. "The fairies used to be there. They used to be coming about a farm, yonder down the glen. They were little people, dressed in green. They used to carry off women. People had to be careful of the women, in case the fairies carried them off. These are very old stories," he added.

One might go on citing many other similar instances without leaving Scotland. Mention might be made, for example, of the Elf Hillock of Brux, Aberdeenshire, situated near the Kildrummy earth-houses or weems, but on the southern side of the river Don. Even yet this Elf Hillock is held in awe by the countryfolk, on account of its former denizens, according to tradition. But it is unnecessary to multiply instances. The point to be noticed is that in all these cases in Ireland, in Wales, and in the Scottish Highlands we have very similar mounds, all alleged to have been reared and occupied by a race of " fairies." For what purpose they were actually reared — there seems every reason to believe that they are not natural mounds—and what is the nature of their inner construction, these are matters as to which we are at present in ignorance.

In other instances, however, successful attempts have been made to break the outer crust and penetrate the hidden mysteries of the fairy mounds. On the Perthshire estate of Coldoch, 4 miles south of Doune, there formerly stood a mound of the same description, locally known as “the Fairy Knowe." But in 1870 some inquisitive antiquaries dug into the “knowe," and discovered that it was no natural hillock at all, but of artificial construction down to its very base, and that it had once been a habitation. A similar history attaches to an alleged residence of the fairies in the Island of St. Kilda. This also was, to all appearance, a hillock. But about the year 1837, as we are told by the late Captain Thomas, R.N., when some people were " digging into the hillock to make the foundations of a new house they discovered what seemed to be the fairies' residence, built of stones inside, and holes in the wall, or croops (sleeping-places), as they call them, as in " another similar dwelling in the same island.

Then, again, Sir Arthur Mitchell states that at Dunrossness, in Shetland, there is (or was) a mound “called the 'Fairy Knowe,' which is about 14 feet high. It appears to have been opened, and seems to me to have contained a stone-built chamber."*

Another hillock of the same general character, situated near Kirkwall, is thus described: "All that meets the eye at first is a green, conical mound, with an indescribable aspect of something eerie and weird about it, resting silently amid the moorland solitude. On closer inspection we discover an entrance passage, about 18 inches high and 2 feet broad, leading from the lower side into the interior of the prehistoric dwelling."* It was only in 1849 that the real nature of this mound was made known to modern people. In the autumn of that year Mr. G. Petrie, who had previously noticed it as "a green knoll, contrasting pleasantly with the surrounding heather," decided that it might be worth examining, and accordingly he employed a couple of men to cut into it. The result was that this innocent-looking knoll proved to be wholly artificial, concealing beneath its grassy exterior a stone-built house of several rooms, of which the largest, situated in the heart of the mound, rose to a height of about 12 feet, in a species of dome, the apex of which was "a regularly-built hole, resembling the top of a chimney. The roof was otherwise continuous, and was merely covered with a layer of turf."

Dr. James Wallace, the son of a seventeenth-century minister of Kirkwall, quotes Sir James Ware to the effect that "some round Hills are found, the inner parts whereof are formed into chambers, and served the Danish Princes of old for Houses." That statement refers to Ireland, but Dr. Wallace continues thus: “Many of these Hillocks are found upon the Sea-side of almost all the Islands of Orknay, though no one of them that I know was ever fully opened and examined. Eastward of the House of Cleat in Westray there is one, on the east side of which I found a subterraneous passage about 40 Feet in length from the center of the Circle. . . . West and by north of the old manse of Westray is such another Hillock, called the Know of Burrista, near the middle of the South-side whereof, and about 16 Feet from the Center of the Round, is a Door fronting the West-Sea, with a Wall on each side, about 30 Feet in Length, and then choack'd with Rubbish. This Passage is near as broad again as that at Cleat, and covered in the same manner, but so high that one may almost stand upright in it."*

It will be observed that the name of one of these mound-dwellings, the Knowe or Knoll of Burrista, shows that it had been long assumed to be a natural hillock, as in the parallel instance of the Fairy Knowe of Coldoch, in Perthshire. A third example of the same kind is the How of Hoxa in the Orcadian island of South Ronaldshay. In the south-east of Scotland a "howe" is a depression in the land ; but in the Orkneys a "how" denotes an eminence, the word being the Norse haug or houg, a hillock. This, then, was known as the Hillock of Hoxa. Like the Knowe of Coldoch, it bears a close resemblance in its ground-plan to the round-towers known as "brochs" and "doons," as will be seen from the drawings of it reproduced by the late Captain Thomas in his “Celtic Antiquities of Orkney," p. 35 (Archczologia, vol. xxxiv.). But, unlike these, and like the similar "round-houses" described by Pope, to be presently referred to, its walls are devoid of any staircase, presumably for the reason that they never rose more than a few feet above their present height.

Among other specimens of the Orkney mound-dwelling is that on the little islet called the Holm of Papa Westray. It is a long mound rather than a hillock, for it only rises some 10 or 12 feet above the surrounding land. Its interior, which has been fully described by Captain Thomas (pp. cit., pp. 42-44), consists of a long gallery with many little rooms or cells leading off from it.

Then in 1855 Mr. James Farrer, M.P., explored another “how" situated on the Holm of Eday. "Its external appearance was that of a circular hillock," says Mr. Farrer. “The entire length of the building [within the 'how'] was found to be 16? feet; the entrance was very narrow, and a large stone was placed at the mouth. There were four chambers, the largest being at the end of the building, and measuring 6 feet 2 inches long, 4 feet 6 inches in height, and 2 feet 6 inches wide. . . . Whilst the size of the stones used in its construction is evidence of great personal strength on the part of the builders, the small and narrow rooms seem to indicate a diminutive race."*

Mr. Farrer's deduction is quite in agreement with popular tradition. For the hang-folk, or hillock-people, are invariably described in local folk-lore as of very small stature. Nor is the locale by any means confined to the Orkney Islands. When Sir James Ware states that "some round Hills are found, the merely a swelling green mound, like so many others in Sylt," observes Mr. W. G. Black,* " entrance is gained by a trap-door in the roof, and descending a steep ladder, one finds himself in a subterranean chamber, some seventeen by ten feet in size, the walls of which are twelve huge blocks of Swedish granite; the height of the roof varies from five feet to six feet. The original entrance appears to have been a long narrow passage, seventeen feet long and about two feet wide and high. This mound was examined by a Hamburg professor in 1868, who found inner parts whereof are formed into chambers, and served the Danish Princes of old for Houses," he may be perfectly accurate in every part of his statement. In that case, we must assume a very different race from that to which modern Danes, princes and peasants, belong; such “Danes," in fact, as those who have left similar mounds in Denmark, and of whom similar tales are told by modern Danes. For example, one of these “hows" may be inspected in the island of Sylt, off the Schleswig coast . “Externally remains of a fireplace, bones of a small man, some clay urns and stone weapons."

Although nothing definite is known of the past history of this " how," Mr. Black suggests that it was the home of some of the dwarf people alleged to have been the aborigines of the island when the ancestors of the present inhabitants came there. "They lived underground, wore red caps, and lived on berries and mussels, fish and birds, and wild [birds'] eggs. They had stone axes and knives, and made pots of clay." The account given of them is, he adds (op. cit., p. 72), "evidently one of those valuable legends which illuminate dark pages of history. It clearly bears testimony to the same small race having inhabited Friesland in times which we trace in the caves of the Neolithic age, and of which the Esquimaux are the only survivors." From their underground abodes they were called "earth-men," a name given by the Dutch to the little Bushmen of the Cape, for the same reason. But as those underground abodes frequently took the outward shape of hillocks, they were also styled " hillock " people.

Many other mounds in Denmark are traditionally said to have been their abodes, of which the following may be cited from Thiele : Two hills, Mangelbierg and Gillesbierg, in the environs of Hirschholm, on Hosterkiob Mark ; a hill called Wheel Hill, at Gudmandstrup, in the lordship of Odd ; a large knoll called Steensbierg, at Oun'ie, near Joegersptiis; the high ridge on which the church stands at Kundebye, in the bailiewick of Holbcck ; and in the same bailiewick, at a place between the towns of Mamp and Aagerup, near the Strand ; Gultebierg supplies yet another to the list; while between Jerslose and Sobierg lies Sobierg bank, "which is the richest knoll in the land." No doubt in several of these instances, assuming tradition to be fairly accurate, there has been some confusion between natural hills and hypothetical habitations on their sides and summits ; as though Wideford Hill, near Kirkwall, had been confused with the mound-dwelling on its slope.

From the use of the term " Neolithic age " in the above paragraph, it might be supposed that Mr. W. G. Black understood those Danish mound-dwellers to have lived at a very remote period. But the expressions commonly employed to denote a certain stage of culture are avowedly used with the reservation that the "age" referred to may have been concurrent with other "ages." Thus, one race whose implements were neolithic may have been the contemporaries and neighbours of another race using bronze or iron.

From the Heimskringla* we learn that the building of mound-dwellings was in vogue in some parts of Norway as recently as the ninth century. The passage which illustrates this tells us of such a structure in Numedal which took three summers to make. It was built by the orders of two chiefs or kinglets, who appear to have ruled the district as independent princes, until Harold Haarfagr invaded their territory at the head of his army, and transformed their kingship into a tributary earldom. Whether they differed in race from Harold and his followers is not evident. During Harold's visit, their mounddwelling was inhabited by one of the chiefs and eleven of his men, unknown to the invaders. This mound, however, must have been of a very superior kind, not only because it took three years to build, but also because slone and lime and also wood were used in its construction. Evidently, therefore, it was a more ornate affair than those specially under consideration.

But although lime seems never to have been used in the stonework of our British mound-dwellings, yet Mr. George Petrie mentions one instance in which his work of investigation was much impeded by " the great quantity of clay used in the construction of the building." This was on that occasion in 1849 when he was cutting into the “green knoll" on the slope of Wideford Hill in Orkney, with the result that the "knoll" revealed itself as "a structure of the description so generally known by the appellation of a Pict's house." With regard to which term something must now be said.

IN JAMES WARE'S statement that " some round hills are found the inner parts whereof are formed into chambers, and served the Danish Princes of old for houses," is not only endorsed by the writer of the year 1700 previously quoted, but also by Dr. Thomas Molyneux, F.R.S., who published a Discourse on the subject in 1725.* "As to the outward shape of these mounts," he observes, " they are made in form of a cone, lessening gradually as it rises from a large basis, till it terminates at the top, not in a point, but a flat surface." A large number of these, he informs us, are sepulchral. “But besides these tumuli, or funeral piles, there is another sort of ancient work still remaining in this kingdom [Ireland], and to be met with in many parts of it, that by their round make, and resemblance to these mounts, as well by the tradition of the inhabitants, show that they derive their original from the same Danish nation. These are the Danish forts, or raths. . . . Many of the larger forts have caves contrived within them underground, that run in narrow, strait, long galleries, some of these above 26 foot in length, 5 foot high, and as many broad;" and in the detailed description which he proceeds to give one easily recognises the subterranean structures known in Ireland and Scotland by various names.

"All this part of Ireland," says a later writer (Thomas Wright, 1747), referring to County Louth, and in connection with the souterrain near the banks of the River of Ballrichan, a tributary of the Dundalk or Castle Town River, "abounds with such caves, not only under mounts, forts, and castles, but under unsuspected plain fields, some winding into little hills and risings like a volute or ram's-horn; others running zigzag, like a serpent; others again right forward, connecting cell with cell. The common Irish tell you they are all skulking holes of the Danes after they had lost their superiority in that island. . . . Others there are who confidently affirm that this country was once infested with a race of giants, and that these were the burrows of the common men."* From which it is evident that the word translated " giant " was not understood to denote a man of large stature, for the " burrows " in question are too restricted in their dimensions to be of any practical use to the average Irishman of the present day. Indeed, the Irish word famhair, or fomhair, often Englished as " giant," really signifies a " moleman ;" a term still applied, under its variant " moudiewart," to Lancashire miners, in allusion to their underground life. Thus, the “giants," or “mole-men," of one tradition may have been identical with the “Danes" of another.

As to those " Danes" themselves, it appears to be generally recognised by modern students that they were not the invaders of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, but a much earlier race, known as the Tuatha D'e Danann, or "the Dananns." They are traditionally stated to have preceded the Gaels in Ireland, and one of the Gaelic names given to them is that of daoine-sithe, or “mound people," owing to their residence in the chambered mounds described by Sir James Ware. Whatever the date of their arrival in Ireland, they are stated to have come thither from the region lying between the Rhine and the Elbe. So say the Irish records.

But the same records also derive the Cruithni, or Picts, from that very region, somewhere about the same period of time. And when one examines the chief attributes ascribed to the Picts, one finds that they strongly resemble those of the "Dananns." This resemblance becomes identity when we consider their dwellings.

The name of “Pict," however, is popularly so much more associated with Scotland than Ireland, that it will prove convenient to turn again to the former country in considering the Picts. In the first part of this paper it was noticed that the "green knoll " on the slope of Wideford Hill, Orkney, opened by Mr. Petrie in 1849, was found to be "a structure of the description so generally known by the appellation of a Pict's house." Chambered knolls of this sort, "beehive" houses, and underground galleries, have all been popularly styled " Picts' houses" in Scotland; but a writer of last century, who describes " the round houses called Pictish houses," seems to have had specially in view the first and second of these classes, which are closely allied to one another. This writer was the Rev. Alexander Pope, minister of Reay (died 1782), who furnished an account of Caithness and Sutherland to Pennant's Tour in Scotland, in the fourth edition of which (London, 1776) he supplies illustrations of two of these structures. One is a round, or beehive-shaped house, having a ground-plan identical with that of the tall circular towers known in Scotland as "brochs" and " doons "; but, of course, without a staircase in the wall, as the wall proper is only 12 feet high, and the total height of the building about 28 feet . The other, situated at the Mill of Loth-beg, in Sutherland, is outwardly a green, conical knoll, in height and other dimensions resembling the Fairy Mounts of Louth and Bala, with an interior plan akin to that of the Wideford "Pict's house" explored by Mr. Petrie in 1849. This second specimen, which was examined by Mr. Pope in company with the then Bishop of Ossory, represents a subdivision of the round-houses thus referred to in his description: " It is to be observed that where the stones were not flat and well bedded, for fear the outer wall should fail, they built great heaps of stones to support it, so that it looks outwardly like a heap without any design." It seems more likely, however, that concealment was their chief motive in such cases, as, except when smoke was issuing from the vent-hole in the apex of its domed roof, such a "Pict's house" would be mistaken for a natural knoll by any passing stranger. For Mr. Petrie adds, what the minister of Reay omits, that this apparent “heap without any design " was " covered with a thick layer of turf, a foot or more in thickness."

It will be seen, then, that many of the dwellings built by, or attributed to, the Picts were practically mounds when viewed from the outside. Consequently, to their contemporaries of other races, who would eventually discover the real nature of those seeming hillocks, the Picts would appear as mound-dwellers. This is strongly emphasized in Gaelic lore. Dr. Hayes O'Grady gives us two parallel passages from Gaelic MSS. which relate to a certain Pictish woman, Nar, daughter of Lotan. The one reference will be found in a manuscript, now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, which formerly belonged to the Argyllshire family of the McLauchlans of Kilbride, and which is supposed to be a portion of the lost library of Iona. In this manuscript Nar is spoken of as " daughter of Lotan of Pictland ; but in the famous Book of Ballymote, a compilation of the latter half of the fourteenth century, she is called " Nar out of the mounds, or of Pictland (a sidaib no do Chruithentuaith)."* Then, again, there is a reference given by the late Mr. Horef to the effect that " in an ancient genealogy we read of a wife [the wife of Tuathal teclitmar] who was obtained from the mounds of the son of Seal the stammerer, otherwise the King of Pictland ;" in the original Gaelic, " A sidhaibh mic Scail Bhailbh, no ri Cruithentuaithi." Both of these women, therefore, were Picts, and both came " out of the mounds—a sidhaibh" from the Gaelic word sid, sidh, or sith, a mound.

But it is further stated that "Nar was of the Tuatha Dea," by which term is signified the Dananns, or Tuatha De" Danann already referred to. Thus, Nar was alike a Pictish woman and a "Danann;" and, under either name, she was a bean-sithe, or "moundwoman." For we have seen that the Dananns and the Picts were each styled daoine-sithe, or " mound-people," on account of their residence in chambered hillocks, or knolls. That " Danann " and " Pict" were different terms applied to what was practically one people appears tolerably evident from what has just been stated. Nor is there anything new in this deduction. An Irish writer of fifty years ago* refers to " the life of St. Cadroe (Colgan, Acta Sanct., p. 494), according to which the Milesians found the Picts—' gentem Pictaneorum'—in possession of Ireland," and, continues this writer, " Colgan {ibid., n. 25) says that he would, in another place, endeavour to explain how the Tuatha De Danann could be called Picts, but I know not whether he redeemed his promise."

One variant of the Gaelic term denoting a mound - dweller is here worthy of a moment's consideration. This is the form siabhra, a corruption of siabhrugh, oxsiabhrog, which in turn are corruptions of the compound sidh-bhrugh, or, in the older form, sid-brug, signifying a mound-burgh, or moundbroch. In Dr. O'Grady's Silva Gadelica one finds many references to the sid-brugs and their inhabitants. When the word was applied, as it often was, to the dwellers instead of the dwellings, it represented a transference of meaning analogous to that seen in such words as terrier, redcoat, and bluejacket, where the earth-dog, the soldier, and the sailor became identified with their immediate associations. The simple form sid also received this twofold application, and "the side" may mean in one place the dwellings and in another the dwellers. It further seems probable that, although the two terms became interchangeable, there was originally a distinction between sid and sidbrug. Thus, a simple round-house which had been made to resemble a mound by means of the stones and earth heaped over it may have been spoken of simply as a sid (mound) ; while a more complicated structure, such as the mound-broch of Coldoch, may have been distinguished as a sid-brug. For the latter belongs to a class of "brochs " which, prior to examination, seemed to be grassy hillocks; whereas other Scottish brochs. such as those of Glenelg, Durness, and Easter Ross, have always been quite devoid of any accretion of earth and turf. In the arid East ruins become easily overblown with heaps of sand ; but it is difficult to account for the fact that some—and only some—of the brochs in Scotland had the appearance of grassy mounds, except by the supposition that their builders had deliberately concealed their exterior by heaping stones and soil around it, as they did with some of their " round-houses."

Time and popular misconceptions have done much to distort the original meaning of this word sid, sidh, or sith\* and its derivatives fir-sithe and daoine-sithe ("moundmen" and "mound-people"). The late Dr. Thomas McLauchlan, whose mothertongue was Gaelic, and who, moreover, knew the language as a scholar, protested strongly against the frequent interpretation offir-sithe as "men of peace," an interpretation based upon the fact that another Gaelic noun, identical in sound and spelling with the word for a mound (or, more strictly, " a conical hill," of any magnitude), signifies "peace." In reality, the characteristics assigned by the Gaels to the mound-men are the very opposite of peaceful.

It is now apparent that, in considering the chambered hillocks known as "Danes' mounts" and " Picts' houses," we have worked round to our starting-point. For the so-called Danes, or Dananns, and the Picts were alike styled daoine-sithe. And although that term had its origin in their mound-like dwellings, yet its most common English equivalent is "the fairies." Thus, the structures referred to were all " fairy mounts." In giving due consideration to this result, it is necessary to discard altogether the fantasies of poets and artists, and only to accept tentatively the traditional beliefs of the peasantry with regard to fairies. To enter upon anything like a critical examination of these beliefs in this place is out of the question.

Were popular tradition an unerring guide to the dwellings of the mound folk (and be it understood that both the traditions and the traditional dwellings occupy a vastly wider area than the British Isles), there would be no doubt that the mounds of Louth, Bala, Pubil, and Brux are earthcovered structures of the kinds described by Ware, Wallace, Pope, and others. But too much time has elapsed since such places were built and inhabited. The quasi-educated peasant of to-day fancies himself superior to his forefathers, and dismisses the whole question with pitying contempt; while even the most conservative of his seniors has only vague and hazy notions on the subject. Any conical hillock may be assumed to be a " fairy " dwelling, without the least warrant in fact. Two alleged Fairy Knowes in Shetland, which were examined in 1865, proved to be nothing but natural formations; and although the " Fairy Knowe of Pendreich," on the estate of Airthrey, Stirlingshire, opened in 1868, turned out to be entirely artificial, it was nevertheless only a sepulchral mound. These three instances alone are sufficient to show the unreliable nature of popular tradition.

To what extent the popular memory is at fault is therefore a question which has yet to be determined, and there is no other method of solution than a careful examination of the various mounds alleged to have been inhabited by the " mound-people." County Ixmth, the scene selected at the beginning of this article, itself furnishes many specimens of these mounds; representations of which have been extant for the last 150 years in the pages of Wright's Louthiana. With regard to one of these, Castle-Town Mount, near Dundalk, Wright observes: " The Mount itself is supposed to be hollow within (as other mounts of the like construction have been found to be), but I have not heard of any attempts that have yet been made to open it." A modern journal* states that another mound in the Dundalk neighbourhood " is said to contain a cave, or subterranean chamber, with a passage ending •in the little marsh between it and Fort Hill. There is said to be a similar passage from the fort at Fort Hill to the marsh. The two forts are connected by a ' fairy pass.' "

The question of these “fairy mounds " is a fascinating one. Perhaps some day a British Excavation Society may take it up; and beginning, let us say, with the mounds of County Louth, or of the Welsh Dee, ascertain the actual purpose for which they were reared.


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