Robert Kirk’s research into fairy folklore is still important today. Was this 17th century Scottish minister punished for prying a little too closely into the world of fairies and elves?
“These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People…are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel…of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies…somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.”
In 1692 a minister took his customary evening stroll on Doon Hill near his church in Aberfoyle, Perthshire. He never returned. His searchers found his body near the lone Scots pine tree at the summit of the hill. The records show that the minister was buried in his churchyard but was he? The mystery around the minister relates an extraordinary alternative version.
At the grave of The Reverend Robert Kirk
I stand at the grave of The Reverend Robert Kirk behind the roofless ruin of Kirkton Church. Coins are scattered on his grave across the carved symbols of a thistle, shepherd’s crook and a dagger. A family enters the graveyard in tense silence. They carry flowers and drift amongst the graves in the modern part of the churchyard. I place some coins on Kirks’ grave and look at Doon Hill, a short distance away. Kirk, so goes the legend, is not buried here but is eternally trapped in Doon Hill’s underworld of elves, fauns and fairies, chaplain to the Fairy Queen. As I leave the family stand around a grave, figures bowed in silence and ritual.
Robert Kirk (1644-1692) was a Gaelic scholar, minister and folklore collector. He translated the Psalms into Gaelic so his parishioners could understand them but he is now more renowned for collecting the folklore and tales of his parishioners. His research was posthumously published after his death as The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and now regarded as an important insight into ancient Scottish fairy folklore.
It describes a world of fairy folklore, witchcraft and ghosts seen only by those who have second sight, yet understood and feared by many more. It’s where persons of the world above have their doppelgangers or doubles in the world below. Where a person is shadow-haunted by co-walkers and co-eaters can feast on a human’s spirit, causing melancholy and illness. Where women are kidnapped to look after sickly, bad-tempered fairy-babies and no-one knows because they have been replaced by their fairy double. Where children with unexplained diseases and disorders are considered to be fairy changelings. In this world fairies are destructive and malignant; they are not the later beautiful, elfin creatures of the Victorian imagination.
I walk towards Doon Hill, along the same village lanes and paths through the woods that Kirk walked, sometimes in his nightgown if it was a pleasant summer’s evening. I wonder about the minister, a walker of natural and supernatural worlds, a minister of a religion that, at the time, was deeply and often violently at conflict with folklore and fairy beliefs.
Kirk was living in an interesting time, a crossroads in Scottish history swirling with ideas, superstitions and conflicting beliefs. Fairies were an important part of magical beliefs in Scotland. In response there was fear and paranoia about witchcraft and a series of witch trials, the last series of which was in 1661–62. The last alleged witch to be burnt alive was Janet Horne in 1727, sometime after the death of Kirk.
Despite the apparent conflict Kirk recognised and accepted the fairies living in hills, a world with its own ways, a home of the dead and a realm of the ancestors. There was logic about this since Kirk was searching for spiritual evidence in the fight against the rising secularism of the Enlightenment. When he visited London in 1689 it was a city at the dawn of the Enlightenment, where the coffee houses and taverns buzzed with new scientific and rational ideas starting to blow away superstitions and beliefs.
“THERE Bodies of congealled Air are some tymes caried aloft, other whiles grovell in different Schapes, and enter into any Cranie or Clift of the Earth where Air enters, to their ordinary Dwellings; the Earth being full of Cavities and Cells, and there being no Place nor Creature but is supposed to have other Animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as Inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure Wilderness in the whole Universe.”
The fairy world: on Doon Hill
I walk the paths through the woods up to the summit of Doon Hill. Cute fairy houses are carved out of tree stumps, with ribbons and tiny plastic dolls left on the steps. Wooden mushrooms are embedded with more coins and doorways are carved into the base of trees. The age of the Fairy Minister and the old ways are now used for the age of tourism and leisure, no doubt adding to the scourging arguments of those hostile to the branding and heritage takeover of British countryside. Yet think how enthralling these houses would be for the imagination of children as they have an adventure in the woods.
It’s when I reach the top of Doon Hill that the mystery of the fairy minister takes another turn. There’s the lone pine tree, an entry to the fairy world of Doon Hill. There’s a belief that you tie a cloutie or a rag to the tree to help someone with misfortune or illness. As the cloutie rots and then falls apart so does the misfortune. People have gone further than rags and wishes. The tree’s festooned with pieces of tartans, paper hearts, bows, baby bibs, teddies, snowflakes and toys. Dreamcatchers hang down from branches.
It’s the messages that hit in the gut with their poignant longing and heartfelt wishes; people seeking and taking comfort just like the grieving family at the churchyard. Someone has hung a dreamcatcher in memory of her mother. There’re apologies to a friend for not saying sorry before he passed away. There’s a Styrofoam cup with happy birthday wishes, a request for the fairies to look after a mother, Valentine’s messages, messages for the dead, a plea to become a midwife written perhaps with unawareness of the fairies’ perchance for stealing babies.
I stand still and listen to the bird song and flutter of ribbons, the wind whispering through the trees and out into the sky above. The fairies took Kirk away and left his double to be buried in the churchyard; punishing him for the transgressions of wandering through their territory and revealing their secrets in The Secret Commonwealth. The dangers of not respecting fairy realms were well-known; Kirk himself documented the case of a woman who fell asleep on a fairy hill and was never the same again, lost in silent melancholy.
But the minister had one more chance.
After the funeral Kirk appeared to a relative and ordered him to visit Grahame of Duchray and say “that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. 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 is neglected, I am lost for ever.”
Kirk did appear at the christening of his child but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw the knife and Kirk to this day has never been seen again. His successor, the Rev. Dr Grahame remarked that “this is extremely to be regretted, as he could now add matter of much importance to his treatise.”
Despite belonging to a different age Kirk’s work in gathering folklore has resonance in a modern secular world. His interests in the natural, scientific and supernatural worlds mirror the recent waves of interest in landscape writing, nature and folklore. He would understand the grieving family in the churchyard, the unknown tying their hopes and wishes to a tree on a fairy tree and the walkers enjoying the nature and beautiful countryside around Aberfoyle.
In turn, if we choose to, we can wonder and decide whether he is buried in the churchyard or still somewhere in the worlds under Doon Hill, the minister to the Fairy Queen.
All quotes above from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies.