Fairies in Scotland, Fairy Knolls and the Reverend Kirke of Aberfoyle and Balquhidder

Doon Hill at AberfoyleTHOUSANDS of words have been written about the Rev Robert Kirk, the 17th-century minister who wrote a pamphlet about the lifestyle of the faeries and as a result, an ofttold story has it, they spirited him away.
He is buried in the kirkyard in the village of Aberfoyle, on the fringe of the Trossachs, but a tall pine tree sticking up on the summit of nearby Doon Hill reputedly contains his spirit, mysteriously transported there by the shadowy "beings" who were angry with him for giving away some of their secrets.

His "book" or essay, The Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies, originally written in 1691, is known and respected in the world of folklore.

Mr Kirk was a very clever man, a university graduate and a Gaelic scholar, and although he believed the Christian God overcame pagan belief, he gives the impression that accepting that much of the vibrant faery lore current in his time was the norm. He said faeries had "light changeable bodies, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight".

Rev Kirke's gravestoneAberfoyle is now a forestry village and is generally regarded as the main faery centre in Scotland because Mr Kirk was born there in 1644, ministered and died there and his grave can be seen in the graveyard of the old parish church. The Forestry Commission have way-marked a pathway on Doon Hill and the nearby David Marshall Lodge visitor centre in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park has information about him.

Trips to 'faery hills' often make pleasant family outings, particularly for children, and they can range from big mountains like Schiehallion to the Faery Knowe on Bridge of Allan golf course.

'Faery' tales have always fascinated those who walk in and around Scotland's hills and who can understand why the people of long ago generally treated these faery mounds as sacred places and refused to take stones, turf, wood or peat from them. In some parts of the Highlands, it was believed that the souls of ancestors dwelt in faery hills.

The faeries, despite their mischievous nature, were also known as the People of Peace or Quietness, the Good People, the People of the Hollow Hills, the Shining Ones, and seem to have had a special liking for pipers who were inveigled inside their hills to perform at faery weddings.

 

The Faery Mountain of SchiehallionThere's no problem finding faery knowes in the Scottish hills. Just pull out any Ordnance Survey map, particularly for the Highlands, and scan the place-names.
Anything with sithean, sidhein or sith (shee) in it or variations of those is generally a mound, knoll or a littlehill associated with these beings, who nowadays tend to be a subject for sarcastic amusement.
Beinn an t-Sidhein, seen across Loch Lubnaig, is popularly called the faery mountain or hill.

They were the most active spirits of Highland mythology, situated somewhere between angels and the human race. They possessed weapons and special ceremonies were held to stop them stealing children at childbirth and putting changelings in their place. They milked the deer and goats and ate brisgean, the root of the silver weed, and stalks and tops of heather and were part of the landscape.

The foxglove was thought to be their thimble, the shell of the flower, the blue vanilla, was their coracle (or small boat) and the cuckoo did not migrate, but went inside faery hills in winter.

It is suspected that the faeries historically were originally a small stature race of human beings, pushed back into mountain fastnesses by stronger peoples and whose lingering presence in the folk-mind and culture gradually turned them into spectral beings. It is so easy nowadays to sound "precious", overly romantic or downright daft when investigating or discussing this subject, but it is a serious topic.

It is sometimes difficult for us today to sense a time when the world was full of good and bad omens, when corries, glens and straths were allegedly inhabited by sprites, goblins or brownies, when faeries couldn't cross running water and yet washed their clothes in green lochans, their favourite colour. People thought flint arrowheads were once faery weapons, that the whorls and marks now known as cup-and-rings which have so puzzled archaeologists were made by faeries.

Balquhidder - where the Rev. Kirke ministered for a time lies close to what is now the ftourism village of Strathyre. Mr Kirk's presence and that of the faeries is undoubtedly present in both places, but tends to under-appreciated nowadays. The meandering Balvag river runs through the glen and strath from Loch Voil, in Balquhidder, and joins with Loch Lubnaig to the south of the village. The Balvaig sometimes floods the ground north of Strathyre and is then known to local people as Loch Occasional. There was once a small township here on the west side of the river. The railway came in 1870 and new villas and hotels were then built on the east side, close to the rail tracks. The old west side path lost its status. The station closed in 1963, but the long line of villas and hotels stayed and seem to do quite well along the modern A84 road. There is now a caravan and camping site on the southern fringe.

Loch Lubnaig, Strathyre and Bein an-t SitheanClose to the main road is a memorial to the greatly revered Gaelic evangelist Dugald Buchanan, who was born in Strathyre in 1716, a man who almost certainly preached against old, supernatural beliefs like faeries, charms and omens.

The Rev Robert Kirk obviously knew Strathyre well. It is a narrow, clear, north-south pass, flanked on either side by steep hills whose sides are now covered in conifer forestry. Annual hill races are held here. Two faery knolls lie on either side of the glen, one well-known, but misunderstood and the other virtually ignored nowadays and both are passed by thousands of modern travellers.

On the west side lies steep-sided Beinn an t-Sidhein, known locally as Ben Sheann or Shian, and popularly called the faery mountain or hill. It must have looked imposing in Robert Kirk's time, but its sides are now softened by conifers. Strictly speaking, Beinn an t-Sidhein is only partly a faery hill, despite the name. It has a knoll-shoulder on the south side called An Sidhean which is the faery hill and which is part of Beinn an t-Sidhein.
On the other side of the glen, tucked away behind the Munro, is a little wooded knoll which now has the war memorial sited on it. It is named Cnoc an t-Sidhein, the faery-knoll, and stands at the foot of the steep, wooded hillside. Its name, too, is not on the Landranger Ordnance Survey map.

Robert Kirk must have passed between these two faery sites dozens of times. There are only a few hundred yards apart and he would register their presence.

There are two way-marked paths on Beinn an t-Sidhein, an energetic walk to the 1800ft summit and a lower track which runs round the sides of the hill. The summit gives fine views down Loch Lubnaig. The northern peak of Beinn an t-Sidhein is called Buachaille Breige, the false herdsman, like many hills bearing such names it probably has a rock somewhere which from a particular angle resembles human form. People long ago would sometimes cross the southern shoulder of Beinn an t-Sidhein and descend into Glen Buckie, a beautiful glen which leads  down to the Kirkton of Balquhidder where Robert Kirk was minister. The walk is now used only by enthusiastic hill walkers.

Glen Buckie also has its share of faery mounds. Close to some shieling ruins at the head of the glen is a prominent knoll. Sidhean Dubh. Some nearby flat ground was known in the past as Lon an t-Sithein, the 'meadow of the faery knoll', and  on the other side of the glen was another faery knoll, Sithean Riabhach, the brindled-faery mound.

Any reason why Glen Buckie had three faery sites close together is lost in the mists of time. Mr Kirk would have known!.

This whole area is littered with Quartz pebbles which were formerly believed to be faery firestones and were also carried by the people of old as a protective charm or talisman.

Perhaps Mr Kirk was right.

 

 

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