The Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies

Robert Kirk

Introduction by Marina Warner

NYRB Classics, £7.99

Scotland is home to around five-and-a-half million people as well as myriad species of birds, animals and fish. But our shores are also teeming with creatures of a different kind, even if few people ever catch a glimpse of them. These shadowy beings are elves, fauns and fairies, whose nature is “somewhere betwixt man and angel". They have light, changeable, vaporous bodies and are “best seen at twilight".

Yet despite their ethereal nature, the impact of their clandestine activities is profound. They steal grain from our fields, milk from our cows and even spirit away our babies. They seduce sleeping men and whisk childbearing women from their beds, as a way of procuring nurses for their own elfin offspring.

The purveyor of this astonishing information is not some crystal-worshipping crank but an erudite biblical scholar. And while Robert Kirk has been dead for more than three centuries, his account of the netherworld was written while he was hale, hearty and practising as the respected Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle in Perthshire.

Kirk’s manuscript was discovered after his death in 1692 and remained unpublished for more than a century, until Sir Walter Scott released it as The Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies in 1815. A subsequent edition was published by the folklorist Andrew Lang in 1893. Yet to this day, no-one seems quite sure whether the esteemed cleric actually believed in the phantasmal world he depicted, or was simply documenting a belief system then widespread among his parishioners.

The information is certainly conveyed, in antiquated 17th-century prose, as though it were fact. Kirk – whose father was a minister before him – argued that such views were perfectly consistent with religious piety and his accounts of non-human spiritual activity may even have been offered as a rebuke to atheists who doubted the possible existence of a superior power.

Whatever his intention, the work – which has just been published in paperback for the first time – offers a fascinating glimpse into a belief system that was supposedly once widespread in Scotland, and which still influences our culture and even our behaviour. Tales of selkies, doppelgangers and premonitions continue to inspire books and movies and in her introduction to the new edition, mythographer Marina Warner cites recent protests against plans to build houses on a reputedly enchanted Perthshire plot as evidence that those mysterious creatures continue to exert their power, at least over the popular imagination.

Where did these beliefs come from? One theory cited by Warner is that fairies were remnants of the Picts who had once ruled Scotland but, once defeated by Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and others, had “literally gone underground” where they can occasionally still be heard hammering away in their tunnels, turning subterranean metal ores into tools and jewels.

In Kirk’s version of events, however, these trogladytic beings are not wholly invisible but live at least partly among us, stealthily influencing our lives. They can sometimes be glimpsed eating at funeral wakes – which is why, he says, many Gaels refuse to touch food at these events. Someone who eats lustily yet remains inexplicably thin may in fact be accompanied by an invisible presence who is sucking the nourishment from his food. And if you ever see the double of a friend or relative, be afraid, for sometimes fairies adopt a living person's likeness in order to warn that they are not long for this world.

There are other ways of foretelling a death. Kirk recalls a spooky story related by one of his parishioners, who witnessed a spectral shroud wrap itself around a man's legs, gradually enveloping his torso, shoulders and finally his head, therefore signalling that this apparently healthy individual was “ripe for the grave”.

Kirk's confidant was a seer, or a man with second sight. Laypeople, the author informs us, can only glimpse such visions through peculiar rituals involving partial self-asphyxiation or alternatively, looking over a seer's shoulder while he holds onto your head. It's not clear whether Kirk ever attempted this and he makes no claim to having second sight himself even if, as a seventh son, he was more likely to be so blessed. (Seventh daughters, we are told, show no such propensity though Warner suggests Kirk's insistence that women rarely become seers may have been intended to distinguish second sight from witchcraft, which was still a capital offence in his day.)

Kirk described belief in fairies as peculiar to Scots Gaels but as Warner points out, similar traditions are found in many cultures. It's also worth asking whether Kirk's parishioners were as credulous as he makes out. “Scottish folklore is full of terror,” writes Sophia Kingshill in her introduction to The Lore Of Scotland: A Guide To Scottish Legends. “In tradition, the landscape is peopled with evil beings, fairies or trows which kidnap mothers and children, kill livestock and whisk the unwary on journeys through the air, while water horses and kelpies are always in wait to lure travellers into deep lochs or rivers or to tempt innocent girls to their doom.”

However, she casts doubt on whether such tales were generally taken as literally true, suggesting that in an environment where "survival was a never-ending struggle against harsh land and hungry sea", these stories were really attempts to explain the forces of nature, to "give people (if only in imagination) some control over their surroundings and circumstances" and to warn children to stay away from deep waters or young women against "taking up with strange men".

Could Robert Kirk have over-estimated the extent to which his parishioners genuinely believed in fairyland? Might he, on occasion, have been the victim of some gentle ribbing? We are told, for example, that these creatures have to move house every three months, transporting their baggage through the air in a spectral flit so ghastly that second-sighted men have to seek solace in church four times a year. It's hard not to imagine a twinkle in the eye of the man who told the good minister that that one.

Whatever the tale's authenticity, Kirk offers it, along with the rest of his treatise, as part of a genuine attempt to grapple with important issues of his time. Writing just before the Scottish Enlightenment, as science and religion began to collide, Kirk was clearly preoccupied with the nature of knowledge and belief, and his account of second sight as simply a more technically advanced method of viewing the natural world (rather like the microscope) is interesting.

In his lifetime, writes Marina Warner, Robert Kirk was “the most absorbing interpreter of fairy lore, with a true storyteller's gift of communicating a fantastic other world”.

He died aged 47 and while history doesn't record the cause of death, popular legend has filled in the gaps. The minister, who reputedly enjoyed taking evening strolls in his nightclothes on the fairy hill near his manse, was found lying dead on that very hill on the evening of May 14, 1692.

Or was he? Local people averred that in fact, the “fairy minister” was still alive but had been transported to fairyland – some said as a punishment for revealing the little people's secrets, others that he'd become chaplain to the fairy queen.

Either way, Robert Kirk was away with the fairies.