How the Reverend Robert Kirk revealed the secrets of the Fairies and how he was kidnapped by them.
This is a true story.
It is a rare occasion, indeed, when a minister of the Faith goes in search of Faeries. Rarer still, is when his purpose is to use their existence to counter the claims of atheists and prove the existence of God and the spiritual realm. Even more exceptional is when that minister is kidnapped by the Fae for his troubles! But that is exactly what happened in 1692 to the Reverend Robert Kirk, Master of Arts, Gaelic scholar, and Minister of Aberfoyle.
A year earlier, in 1691, Reverend Kirk completed his manuscript, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. In it, he reveals the “nature and actions of the Subterranean, Invisible People heretofore going under the name of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.” His sources were Low-Country Scottish Seers of the Second Sight who for generations were familiar with the comings and goings of this mysterious race of beings. To be sure, the Scottish lowlands were a hotbed of fairy activity throughout history. But until Kirk, no one had sought to systematically assemble fairy lore in a comprehensive and scholarly way. What’s more, the famous folklorist, Andrew Lang, who composed the Introduction to the 1893 publication of the manuscript, notes that if Kirk had conducted his investigations in any other part of Christendom, the charge of witchcraft would be close behind him. Instead, as Lang tells us, “Yet Mr. Kirk of Aberfoyle, living among the Celtic people, treats the land of faery as a mere fact of nature, a world with its own laws, which he investigates without fear of the Accuser of the Brethren.”
Unencumbered of the need for religious subterfuge, Kirk’s work is a glimmering gem of authentic folklore. It represents the only honest investigation into the Fae before the smoke stacks of industrialization would distort our view of them forever. As such, Stewart Sanderson says in his 1964 article for Folklore, “A Prospect of Fairyland”, The Secret Commonwealth is “one of the most important texts in Europe dealing with fairy belief and the second sight.”
The following is what he discovered.
In ages past the Fae were said to live above ground, but with the coming of man, they were driven below. This explains why Kirk identifies them most frequently as, “The Subterranean Inhabitants” since their residences are located underground; most commonly in the fairy hills of the Scottish countryside.
They are a type of being that exists between Man and Angels. He also echoes older traditions that see Fairyland as a third, alternative option to Heaven and Hell. It is not Purgatory, however. To Kirk, the idea of Purgatory was really just the “Secret Republik [sic]” of Fairyland by another name (and given a religious white-washing).
Fairy bodies are “astral” in nature: light and changeable, like “condensed cloud” or “congealed air”. They are able to appear and disappear at will and slip into any “Cranie or Clift [sic]” in the earth where only air might otherwise enter and descend to their underground hill dwellings. Their abodes are “large and fair, and (unless at some odd occasions) unperceivable by vulgar eyes.” They are lit by lights, lamps, and fires that have no apparent source of power.
A fairy’s lifespan is much longer than ours, but they are not immortal. To try and harm them with a human weapon is useless; like trying to split the air with an axe. They are, however, fearful of iron and do their best to avoid it. Mortals who do find themselves in combat with them often find themselves rendered temporarily invisible and transported some distance away.
They are wiser than us since their “brains, being long clarified by the high and subtle air will observe a very small change in a trice [sic]” (instant). Such subtle perception allows them to be able to predict the future much easier than us.
The image of a fairy procession is one that also confirmation in The Secret Commonwealth. This is because they are nomads who change their lodgings four times a year. At these times, the Seers of the Second Sight are sure to attend Church so they may avoid getting assaulted by elf-shot (now thought to be Neolithic flints).
From this, we may conclude that Fairies are not the miniature ballerinas with dainty wings they transformed into during the Victorian period, but rather ethereal beings deserving of caution and respect.
THEIR SOCIETY, SOCIAL CUSTOMS AND BELIEFS
Socially they are organized into tribes and orders and ruled by an aristocracy. Like us, they have “children, nurses, marriages, deaths, and burials”. They also experience “controversies, doubts, disputes, and feuds.” Though they don’t indulge in swearing or reckless behavior, their chief vices are “envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying, and dissimulation [guile].”
For food, some consume “spirituous liquors that pierce like pure air and oyl [sic]”, while others have a fondness for corn. One can only imagine the great celebrations in Fairyland when Moonshine (corn whiskey) was invented! Like witches, they have the ability to steal milk and food at a distance. Some may even attach themselves to individuals and consume the essence of that person’s food. This is why some people can eat as much as they like and never gain a pound.
Surprisingly, they dress a lot like us; taking on the dominant fashions in whichever locale they inhabit. They are “seen to wear plaids and variegated garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs [skins] therefore in Ireland.” The quality of their attire, however, is more refined than ours. Kirk is not sure if they use materials and tools as we do or it they make use of “curious cobwebs, impalpable rainbows, [or] a fantastic imitation of the actions of more terrestrial mortals.” Similarly, when they speak, it is in the language of the local country. Their voices have a clear, smooth, whistling quality.
Fairies have no discernible religious beliefs but are said to disappear at the mention of Jesus’ name. They do believe that “nothing perishes, but (as the Sun and Year) everything goes in a circle.” Thus a cosmic view of the Circle of Life seems to lay at the core of their belief systems. Likewise, their books are mostly of an esoteric, mystical nature and often contain charms and counter charms to affect other beings.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
It could be that the majority of fairies prefer just as much to pay us no mind at all. But Kirk focuses more on those who do. Of these, they are likely than not to be mischievous. What we mistake for poltergeists, for example, are more often fairies having their fun at our expense; though they do so with harmless intentions. It is also said that they are “ever readiest to go on hurtful errands, but seldom will be the messengers of great good to men.” On the other hand, some apparently like humans so much they sometimes become someone’s fairy lover; coming to them at night like succubi.
Their most common crime is the kidnapping of human children (and leaving a changeling in its place). They also kidnap human nurse-maids to feed their children (or those they have stolen), leaving a double of them in human society. Once the faerie children no longer need their milk, the maids are either taken back to the human world or given the option of staying in fairyland. If any of them pry too much into the affairs and mysteries of the fairies, however, the fairies may take offence and strike them blind and dumb. We may speculate that in revealing the Fairy secrets to the world, Robert Kirk met a similar fate as nursemaids who knew too much.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ROBERT KIRK?
On May 14th, 1692, a year after completing The Secret Commonwealth, Kirk took his usual twilight stroll to the fairy hill (Doon Hill) beside his house and suddenly died. Or so everyone thought.
Soon after the funeral, Kirk appeared to a relative and declared that he was not dead. Rather, the body in his tomb was a changeling and that he was in reality, a captive in Fairyland. One hope remained for him to be returned to human society: the relative was to find his cousin, Grahame of Duchray, and deliver a message. According to Sir Walter Scott in Letters on Daemonology and Witchcraft, it was this:
“When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost forever.”
Kirk’s relatives confirmed that he did indeed appear at the christening, but that Duchray was so astonished, that he forgot to throw the knife over Kirk’s head. Thus Kirk presumably returned to Fairyland to become, as Andrew Lang writes, “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”.
Lang goes on to say, “Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person.” For gifting the mortal world a look at what Fairies were believed to be like in their most pristine state, he was taken to Fairyland, never to return.
For the more curious minded Kirk left instructions on how one might see the Invisible People for oneself. But his story comes with a warning: don’t peer too closely or speak too much about what you see or you may find meeting a similar fate, spirited away to Fairyland. Of course, some of us would be okay with that.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893.
Lang, Andrew. Comment. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. By Robert Kirk. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893. 2-23.
Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore, Vol. 75, No. 1, Taylor and Francis, Spring, 1964. 1-18.