In my new book, Faery, I discuss several situations in which faeries interact with human children—usually by trying to steal them when they're babies or toddlers, but I also consider the contrasted cases where they act contrary to expectation and look after infants where the human parents aren't doing so.
Here, I'm going to have a look at two other aspects of relationship: faery attempts to kidnap older children and their own childcare skills.
It is easy enough for the faeries to lift infants out of cradles. How do they go about making off with older children who can think and act for themselves? There seem to be three broad strategies: they kidnap them, they trick them, or they lure them away. There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys, so it's hardly surprising to discover that it was believed that the faeries were always on the lookout for chances to abduct young people.
Obviously, it's easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly, and it is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means. In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie. One day, they cut off a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever. Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened, and the mother immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again. What sort of charms might work is shown by the next case. A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck. Indeed, so common could this habit of playing together be that, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.
Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement is necessary. It might be nothing more than playing upon the child's curiosity, as in the medieval Welsh case of Elidyr. He had run away from home after an argument about his lessons and had hidden for two days on a river bank. Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to, "a country full of delights and sports." That was all he required to persuade him to go with them. Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady. He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music, and after much wandering, fell asleep. When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and she then guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.
Some children require more material temptation to leave familiar and safe places. On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge one day when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them. She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever. In Northumberland, near Alnwick, there used to be a well-known faery ring. It was reputed that, if children danced around it nine times, they would be in the faeries' control. To encourage them to do this, the faeries used to leave food and other gifts at the ring, and parents, in response, would tie bags containing peony roots and seeds around the necks of their offspring as a protection against faery harm. Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the faeries would leave out faery butter as bait for children.
These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks. For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt. He told her that, "two bundles of rags" had led him away; they were very evidently pixies in disguise who'd aimed to attract his attention and lull his suspicions. Tellingly, as soon as the lights of his mother's lantern appeared, as she came searching for him, these rags vanished.
Often the kidnap is covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee's place. The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay suddenly fell ill and wasted away. It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the faeries and a changeling had been left behind. This the father exposed, with the time-honoured trick of brewing in egg shells, and then violently expelled. However, he still had to go to the faery knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice). The boy was working for the faeries there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him. Children and adults are taken because they have skills useful to the faeries—although, curiously, in this case the boy's abilities were enhanced by his time "under the hill."
Some children are simply snatched without any ceremony. In one case, from the Isle of Man, a boy sent to a neighbour's house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy. He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry. He remained this way for a week. This could almost be a changeling story. In another tale from Man, a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla who had a very lucky escape from a similar kidnap attempt. Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea. A fight broke out amongst the faeries and, because they said the child had incited this discord, some of the little men spanked her, but let her get away. The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.
We naturally assume that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to faeryland. One incident contradicts this. A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a faery hill but, the next morning she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free. She agreed, but was to be allowed to visit her daughter in the hill. After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother. The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the faeries ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.
Going with the faeries need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately. Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery. A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away while she attended to the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the girl had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning several days later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper's house, and there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were assumed to have stolen the little girl, but insteade seem to have cared for her and returned her.
Very little tends to be said about the faeries' own offspring. What do we know about them?
Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that faery births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours. For this reason, human midwifes are taken to assist the faery mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for faery infants. For instance, in the story of The Faery Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover when he asks about children that there are:
"Very few indeed," she replied, "though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father."
Given how precious offspring must be, it's notable how often they seem to get lost. Most of our encounters with faery children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow. One evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard. He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like, "Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo" and the sound of feet kicking. A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside. He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring. This case sounds a little neglectful, although his panic may be understood. In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night. She slept in the bed with the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly. In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous throughout their lives.
Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England. A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she'd been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her; several stories indicate that they will do just that.
Sometimes the infants are just careless, as was the case with a pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall. A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep. He scooped it up and took it home, where it was named Bobby Griglans by his family. The boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family's children. One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie's parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them.
Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting by the faeries, too. Faery children can get sick, and their families will show natural parental sympathies and take care of them. For example, a faery child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, asking for some milk for the poorly infant. Given these motherly concerns, though, it may seem harder to understand how they can take human offspring and not appreciate the grief this can cause.
Lastly, what do these infants look like? The lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes—in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand, as well. It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the faeries. For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that "fine and solid" country babies were the ones preferred. It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like faery offspring.
In conclusion, as is often the case, the impression we get of the faery relationship with humans is one of contrariety and unpredictability. They may care for our children if they're neglected, but have no qualms about kidnapping them in other situations. They take good care of their own families, look after the children they kidnap, and appreciate it when humans tend for faery infants, but they can also behave quite heartlessly towards the young. This is just another example of how complex our dealings are with the Good Folk and how careful we need to be.