I grew up in Washington Irving country…in the rolling Taconics of New York State, nestled in between the Hudson River and the Housatonic, just west of the Berkshires. My mother taught at Ichabod Crane High School. One of my friends lived on the Old Post Road, near the scene of Sleepy Hollow. In eighth grade, my class did a project on the restoration of the Van Allen House. Local history holds that Katrina Van Allen was to Washington Irving as Katrina Van Tassel was to Ichabod Crane. From our house on Red Mill Hill, we could see over the Hudson River Valley to the outline of the sleeping Rip Van Winkle in the Catskills to the west.
These stories were as much a part of our culture and heritage as the mountains were themselves. We knew these stories as well as any, maybe even better. These stories were a part of the landscape. There are those who feel that the silent men who lured Rip Van Winkle up into the hills to drink and bowl were the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, I can’t help but wonder if there is also another seed for the story that may have been planted in Irving’s head by his Scottish parents.
There are as many Scottish stories of fairie- human interaction as there are hills in the Highlands named for, or about, fairies. Finding faerie knowes in the Scottish hills is as easy as pulling out any Ordnance Survey Map, particularly for the Highlands, and scannning the place-names for sithean, sidhein or sith (shee). Although many are too small to be named on the maps, they designate a mound, knoll or a little hill associated with fairies/ faeries/fay/fae. Places take on the stories of the landscape. Two of the more famous interaction stories involve two of the places where we ventured to spend time on our journey.
Tomnahurich means “hill of the yews” and is a round, tree-covered hill in Inverness. It used to be away from the city, but the city has expanded to encircle it. A cemetery now covers the hill, from the very top all the way (in sculpted layers) around the hill to its bottom.
Thirteenth century poet/seer Thomas the Rhymer is said to be buried beneath it, or still living within it, ready to lead an army of men and white horses to rally Scotland in its hour of need. Legends speak of how Thomas was sought out by a Faerie Queen, and shown the mysteries of the world as they rode on her horse through enchanted lands. Her gift to Thomas was an apple, saying that after he ate it, he would never be able to speak a lie. Hence, his gift of prophecy was bestowed upon him.
Tomnahurich Hill has many local traditions and stories associated with it, and it is famed as a major abode for the faerie folk. There are stories of men who were lured in to the hill to play for the faery people during one of their sacred festivals. Some of the stories are told about a fiddler who played for the Faerie Folk for an evening and then returned home only to find that 20 years had passed. Other stories are told of two fiddlers. Sometimes, it’s one, or two, bagpipers. And, sometimes it’s many more years than twenty that pass in the outside world as the revelries of one night pass in the land under the hill.
It took us a few times getting on and off and around the same roundabout to locate the street that would take us to the entrance to Tomnahurich Hill, but when we did get there, we were all awestruck. As I sit and write this now, I start to wonder if our difficulties were brought on by unseen forces. Perhaps we had to truly want to be there.
We found a little dirt road that veered off the paved road through the part of the cemetery that was on street level, and I slowly guided the car up along the side of the hill, winding around it as we went. We must have gone around the hill at least four times before we arrived at the top: an open circle above and around which the cemetery stood some six or seven steps up. The three of us slowly wandered off, each of us in our own direction. I stayed to the perimeter, on the outside of the standing gravestones and under the trees that surrounded them. What I remember most it how green and lush and sweet-smelling the entire area was. We came together again, in our own time, and all of us were in some way drawn to stay and to walk in the forested areas on the sides of the hill. And then, we all smiled at each other knowlingly, and laughed, and got in to the car and left.
A few days later we found our way to Aberfoyle and Balquhidder, close to the village of Strathyre in west-central Scotland. I wanted to go there specifically because of the reading I had done years ago online that was about the writings of Rev. Robert Kirk. In 1691, he wrote “Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies”. Rev. Kirk was well-versed in the Gaidhlig and, as a native of Aberfoyle, he was very accepting of the faery lore that was intrinsic to the Highlanders. And he was well-known to keep the company of the Folk. He wrote a description of the faerie people, saying that they had “light changeable bodies, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight”.
The Reverend Kirk died suddenly as he was on one of his long walks in the hills. His story continues that he was not actually dead, but had been taken away by the Faerie Folk. He appeared to a relative after he was “taken” and explained his plight. He said that he could be set free if his cousin would throw a dagger over his head when he appeared again at the christening of his child that was born after he “died”. He did appear as he said he would, but evidently, the cousin was too much taken aback to remember to throw the dagger and Reverend Kirk was not able to return. Stories of this have been written by a few writers who explored the Highland culture of the faeries. (One of whom was Andrew Lang in “The Secret Commonwealth” which is still available, in part, online.)
We stayed in the Parish Grounds at Balquhidder for quite some time. We were there early on a Sunday morning, and were able to have our time there before services began. The original church building is in ruins, and the “new” one, still a couple of hundred years old, stands just up the hill as though it is guarding its older sister. Just in front of the church ruin are the marked graves of Rob Roy and his wife and son. There is controversy in the MacLaren Clan, though. The kirk historically belongs to the MacLaren Clan and the head of the MacLarens believes that Rob Roy was buried in an unmarked grave a couple of miles away. That only gives more enchantment to the story.
As Kyle and Liisa wound their ways through the ruins, graveyard and surrounding forests, I stood in the misty rain and looked out over the glen and the hills. I could see, and feel, the mystic ancientness of this small area. There were two knolls, one on each side of the glen. Research shows that they have lovely names, though neither is large enough to show on Ordinance Survey Maps. On one side is Beinn an t-Sidhein, called “the faerie hill” and on the other side, tucked away behind a larger hill, is a little wooded knoll which has a war memorial on it: Cnoc an t-Sidhein, “the faerie-knoll”, stands at the foot of a steep, forested hillside. It is said that pieces of quartz, thought to be faery firestones, can be found on these hills. Both are looked over by the higher Schiehallion, “the faerie hill of the Caledonians”, with its crest of quartz, which stands further north past Killan and Loch Tay.
It’s interesting that in both these places we were drawn to linger; we all felt the energy of it. We knew when it was time to leave…it was when it felt like it was time to stay for a while longer.