In the ancient world, fairies were seen as a part of the social and physical landscape. Whether good or bad, they interacted with the environment and the humans who increasingly, with the progress of land development, encroached on their turf. Regardless of their true origins, stone circles and barrow mounds are often associated with the elusive and dangerous chthonic beings we call the Fair Folk.
The United Kingdom and its associated nations have a reputation for its folklore and the archaeological remains of Neolithic culture. Often, ghost stories and fairy warnings are attached to bodies of water, standing stones, megalith-strewn forests, and fallen Iron Age structures.
Warnings about such locations stretch back into what could be considered a common mythology. There were always others among us, in the wild and in the old places, who would rather be left alone. They would sicken and steal children and livestock and stumbling into one of their gatherings was likely to result in disappearances. People who visited these sites sometimes claimed to experience disorientation and fear, having heard music and laughter which came from within the hillside, abandoned castles and fortresses, and the thin air itself.
Stone circles and barrows are equally fascinating to New Age paganism and the scholarly study of anthropological archaeology. These time-worn structures are man made and believed to be the remnants of a Neolithic landscape serving the spiritual life of ancient humans. It could be posited that the mythical and the cultural are connected through the way in which ancient gods lose social strength to become lesser spirits.
In another age, humans buried their leaders and dignitaries in barrows. They may have believed the worthy dead entered another realm through the grave, a space where time meant nothing and the woes of mortality were erased. Song and dance and feasting were to be the rewards for such once notable lives.
Historically, stone circles may represent an earlier civilization's religious system, centered on the turn of seasons and the cycle of nature. This would be where the gods and spirits came to commune with the humans who gathered to celebrate and worship. Perhaps the stories of fairy-human interaction at such locations are linked to the subconscious idea that structures such as barrows and stone circles are sacred ground. Here, we'll explore a few of the places where fairy sightings have occurred.
Doon Hill is considered to be one of the most fairy-haunted locations in the United Kingdom. It was the inspiration for the Reverend Robert Kirk's 1691 book, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies. It was once believed that Doon Hill was a gateway to the land of the fairies. As the story goes, Reverend Kirk was killed by the fey for having revealed this information.
To this day, visitors tie white cloth strips with wishes on the branches of a fir tree on the hill in the hopes that the fairies will grant their stated desires. This may be linked to the early religious practices surrounding sacred groves and springs. It is also said that running seven times around the largest fir tree on Doon Hill will cause the fey to appear.
Willy Howe is a barrow hill found in the parish of Thwing which has been excavated twice with little of its true purpose discovered. There is a folktale of fairies living in the barrow that goes back to the 12th century which concerns a man who encountered fairies at their merriment at the hill. Upon being asked to drink with them, he emptied the cup without taking a sip, and rode away fast with the object. Other stories attributed to Willy Howe concern treasure hidden there in an immoveable chest.
The Isle of Man is rich in fairylore and contemporary sightings are not unusual. In the late 20th century, little people have been seen dancing in circles in Glen Auldyn. Music and tinkling voices are heard in the woods around the glen near the slate quarries.
Yorkshire is full of fairylore, so it should be no surprise that the most famous fairy sighting occurred in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. But there is another fey-oriented location in Cottingley which has, for decades, drawn the curious. In the Black Hill woods of Cottingley, there can be found a series of stones which are carved with ancient cup-and-ring patterns. Nearby, a number of people have encountered little people dressed in medieval peasant clothes and green hats.
Arbor Low is considered to be one of the most important prehistoric sites in Derbyshire, dating from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, and there are many barrows found in the countryside, the largest of which is Gib Hill, known historically as a place for hanging criminals.
Fairy lights have been seen dancing along the hill's sides.
Freni Fawr, west of Tegryn in Wales, is a hill also associated with fairylife. The local folklore tells of a shepherd boy who reported being taken by the Gentry when he entered their circle after being drawn there first by his curiosity and then by festive music. He spent many years in a fairy palace only to be released when he broke the rules concerning a special well. Upon returning to the hillside, he found that only minutes had passed and he was safely back with his sheep.
Llyn Barfog, also in Wales, is a fairy lake in the high countryside above Aberdovey; the legend of fairy cattle rising from the waters is a local superstition. Fairy cattle are prized for their fine milk, but a hapless farmer who raises a hand to harm one would find himself unable to do so and must lose the fairy gift when the cow returned to the lake. There is also a dangerous water monster in Llyn Barfog associated with the tale of King Arthur.
Fairy cows that come out of the water to give the whole village milk also feature in stories about the Callandish Stone circle, located on the Isle of Lewis.
Remote and secluded, this location consists of a large central stone and a circle of thirteen smaller stones where a ghostly figure is said to visit at dawn on the Midsummer Solstice.
There is a stone circle on a slope of Elva Hill. Fifteen stones form an almost perfect circle forty meters in diameter and research into the geography suggests that the circle may have contained double that many megaliths at an earlier age. Elva Hill is known as a fairy hill and was probably used, in Neolithic times, for the trade of axes.
A very famous example of Neolithic sites being associated with fairylore is the Avesbury Complex, a henge and stone circle. Small figures, lights, and music have been witnessed by unwary humans who pass through the village and the attached stone complex at night.
Other ancient ritual sites known for strange lights include Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria and the Hordron Edge Stone Circle as well as the Twelve Apostles Standing Stones, which is also known as the location for an incident of UFO activity in 1976, when the Royal Air Force became involved in chasing a set of mysterious lights. Cader Idris, in Wales' Snowdonia National Park, carries a history of strange light phenomenon, as well, and a reputation for being able to drive visitors mad if they spend the night on its peak.
Once considered to be a threat to human safety in a time when a family could be well-isolated on farmland many miles from any neighbors, fairies are now being spotted less and less. We cannot know whether this is because they don't actually exist beyond the fears of our ancestors or because they have fled the countryside altogether.
Harrow Hill on the West Sussex coast, deep in the South Downs, is known to be the last home of the fairies in England. They disappeared to never be seen again when the Neolithic flint mines were excavated in the early 1920s. But a famous story of the fairyfolk who inhabited the area describes them as being like children wearing clothes from a bygone age who danced while being strangely quiet and then vanished when looked at directly.
In the Torchwood series one episode, "Small Worlds", the fairies are a trace of the ancient Earth, perhaps older than the Silurians from the television show Doctor Who. They transcend the physical plane and possess the power to alter the weather and kill those who stand in their way. They haunt the small wild patches which are all that's left to them. They seek out their Chosen, human children who are special to them. The Chosen human child behaves like a changeling, not fitting into any segment of society and uncaring for the loss.
Being investigated by the Cardiff team, fairies are shown as menacing anthropomorphic insect-like beings who step in and out of time and space as a part of their nature. With them, a Chosen One will live forever, a staple in fairylore concerning stolen children and the passage of time in the fairyworld. The use of carved standing stones in a forested area which humans have always avoided is a tie to the stories which describe forbidden and abandoned lands where only the fey may go.
In literature, fairies and their sacred spots are a common theme.
J. R. R. Tolkien, who penned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, used the mythical history of the British Isles to create a Middle Earth where fairies, barrow wights, elves and goblins feature as a cast of thousands. The word hobbit may come from the older word 'hob', a term used for fairies helpful to humans and who live in holes in the earth. The first lines of The Hobbit reflect this connection.
'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'
Bilbo Baggins and his race may be an echo of the fairies that live in the barrows and hills. The elves of the woods could also be linked to those forbidden patches of forest often rumored to be the hunting ground of the fey. Tolkien wrote extensively, both prose and poetry, of mythological beings such as wights and fairies that could be found in bogs and on moors and in the forgotten ruins.
Diana Gabaldon, the American author of the Outlander series, gave us a stone circle which has the power to transport people through time. The tale used as background for this phenomenon is that the fairy stories of humans disappearing and appearing near stone circles could be tied to the megalithic stones or the ground itself. The novels go on to explain that there are many of these circles, located all over the world, and that those humans who manage to slip through the cracks in time are always seen as being out of place and odd, possibly fairies and witches, by the people they encounter.
As a side note, it's worth mentioning that Gabaldon based one of her series' main characters on a companion of the Doctor, from Doctor Who, even going so far as to give him the same name. She was inspired by the serial "The War Games", a storyline featuring soldiers who looked like they could've stepped right out of World War I on Earth. However, the Doctor Who serial "The Highlanders" contains scenes which may have more directly influenced the plotline and involved characters of the Outlander series.
With the Discworld fantasy of Lords and Ladies from Sir Terry Pratchett, the fairies are revealed in all their nastiness. Their glamour is just that---a glamour, and masks dark intent and feral magic. The terrible possibilities hinted at with the whispers of folklore are written large here. The fairies will hurt you.
This theme is seen again in another Pratchett novel, The Wee Free Men. Two fairy races are brought to light. One group lives in a barrow and are given to the party life and the theft of livestock. They are good-hearted, woad-skinned, and sound like the Scotsmen of Robert Burns' knowing. They are warriors and very different from the Gentry elves who more closely resemble the fairies of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and the Scottish legend of Tam Lin.
Pratchett's use of the fairy mythology includes stealing children and livestock, fairy mounds, standing stones, and the use of iron to hold back the Other World. There is more than a trace of the Tam Lin story in The Wee Free Men, as well as a link to the Jim Henson movie, Labyrinth, itself a feast of fairylore.
In the United Kingdom, there are at least a thousand places that have standing stone circles and innumerable earthworks and these, along with stories and local lore about fairy-human interactions have inspired and influenced novels and songs, television and movies. The stones sometimes bear carvings from the Neolithic and the Iron Age and are often found to be deliberately placed by prehistoric hands, a touch of our history which lingers.
Believed to be the physical markers of early spirituality, the stones and barrows still hold our imagination, king and god paling to become wight and fairy, only now to take new form with modern storytelling methods which manage to re-capture the wary awe due to the Fair Folk and their place within our ancestral culture. While Torchwood usually focuses on phenomenon and aliens from beyond the Rift, with “Small Worlds”, the focus is on Earth and reveals something terrifying and native about our world.