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The man who taught us to believe in fairies

The 17th-century folkloric studies of Robert Kirk clashed with the scepticism of his contemporaries – but his spirit of wonder has been embraced by writers from Walter Scott to Phillip Pullman.

The Times reported in 2005 that a property developer in Perthshire, Scotland, had been prevented from breaking the ground for some houses on land he had acquired because there was a fairy stone standing on it. Local people were seriously protesting against its removal: the rock was ancient, it covered the entrance to a fairy fort or hill, and it was extremely unlucky to move any such ancient monuments because the fairies would be upset… and take their revenge. The Times reporters joked, dubbing the locals’ beliefs “MacFeng shui”. They quoted the chairman of the local council with responsibility for granting planning permission: “‘I believe in fairies,’ she said, ‘but I can’t be sure they live under that rock.’ For her, the rock had historical and sacred importance because it was connected to the Picts and their kings had been crowned there.”

The builder’s bulldozers were stopped; since then, there has been no more news from St Fillan’s Perthshire.

Perthshire is the county where, more than 300 years ago, the earliest and – to this day – one of the most significant studies of fairyland and fairies was researched and written by a minister of the Scottish Kirk, himself called Robert Kirk. His parish was in Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, about 20 miles from St Fillan’s, surrounded by wild and lonely Highland scenery. And there, in 1691, he compiled the lore and beliefs of his parishioners for an extended essay, The Secret Commonwealth, left in manuscript at the time of his death shortly after.

The reverend was an episcopalian minister in the Scottish Highlands, following in his father’s footsteps. He was born in 1644, and a seventh son. During his childhood, the family experienced at first hand the violence of the English Civil War and religious tensions: the Kirks lost their house and all their possessions in the troubles.

Questions of the occult and the supernatural were no less close to home, and no less contentious. King James I, formerly James VI of Scotland, who came to the English throne in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth and united the warring kingdoms, was a committed believer in magic powers. In his treatise, Daemonologie (1597), King James had justified his hand in the terrible witch hunts of his time, and throughout Kirk’s life, witches continued to be hunted and killed – the last execution was to take place in Scotland as late as 1727, while witchcraft remained a capital offence for another eight years.

King James also left his mark in another, profound way: it was his Authorised Version of the Bible, distributed throughout the parishes of the realm, that crystallised the newly united nations’ consciousness, both with regard to the Protestant faith and the English language.

Robert Kirk was closely touched by these strains in 17th-century attitudes: by arguments over heterodox beliefs and religious truth, about national identity, and by the spread of Bible reading. But his ministry, his learning and his temperament bore him on the current in a different direction from most of his contemporaries: towards a benign and tolerant delight in the breadth of human understanding, imaginings and possibility.

Here was a minister of the Kirk who threw his arms wide to enfold the beliefs of his parishioners, who collected the lore of the people, and was fascinated by their concept of faery. He did not hold with stringent diagnoses of heresy or with rooting it out, but treated popular custom and opinion – and superstition – as worthy of intellectual interest and genuine respect. In The Secret Commonwealth and related documents, Kirk set out what he had learned from seers gifted with second sight about the “middle” people, and he wrote down his discoveries without scepticism, let alone scoffing.

The result has an affinity to the works of the English antiquarian belletrists of the same era – Thomas Browne, Robert Burton and John Aubrey. But Kirk’s slender opus is far more than a curiosity, or even a miscellany; in The Secret Commonwealth he outlines a vigorous, unofficial supernatural system that was flourishing as widespread belief in his day. Extant in two manuscripts, this extraordinary treatise was only printed and published for the first time in 1815, more than a hundred years after its composition, through the enthusiasm of Walter Scott. Some 80 years after that, Andrew Lang, another prolific and patriotic Scottish writer and collector of local lore, re-edited Kirk’s text, adding an enthusiastic introduction. In the perspective of the Victorians and the Edwardians, fairies became familiar inhabitants of Romanticism’s enchanted realms, and the cult of imagination lifted the suspicion of religious deviancy and popular foolishness that clung to them in Kirk’s time.

In any era, however, Kirk’s approach astonishes. For a man of learning to believe in fairy hills, changelings and doppelgängers strikes the modern mind as peculiar to say the least; for a man of the cloth to credit men – he was at pains to exclude women – with powers of night wandering, telepathy, metamorphosis and healing, appears inconsistent with every religious principle.

In the middle to late 17th century, there were many empiricists and even atheists among Kirk’s contemporaries who mocked credulity among Christians and heathen likewise; they denounced the persecution of witches and heretics not because they advocated tolerance but because they despised such terrors as reprehensible ignorance. The supernatural was a zone of vehement conflict, and the new coffee-house society in London rang to the arguments of sceptics such as Thomas Hobbes, who attributed visions to physiological causes. The new thinking was leading to a denunciation of superstition within established faith; David Hume’s 1848 critique of miracles was in the making.

To counter the moderns, Thomas Browne protested, “they that doubt of these [witches] do not only deny them, but Spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a sort, not of Infidels, but of Atheists”. Christian scholars such as Robert Boyle, the eminent chemist, began mounting a vigorous defence of religion through applying empirical methods of inquiry and proof. Browne and Boyle fashioned a scientific hypothesis that telepathy, prophetic dreams and precognition (second sight) were all forms of consciousness, and that the circumstantial descriptions of fairyland – visible to some, visited by others – offered tangible evidence of other worlds that were congruent with the divine plan of the universe. It was Kirk’s particular innovation that in order to give support to claims of uncanny powers, he did not have recourse to the much rehearsed charges against witches, but described with apt, lively detail the parallel realm of “the Subterraneans” as beheld by those who could see them. Fairies became the warranty of preternatural human powers.

In the steps of his mentor Robert Boyle, Kirk was especially keen to forge an alliance between the latest scientific discoveries, especially in optics, and the preternatural faculties of fairy watchers and walkers – those endowed with second sight. Kirk was by no means alone in accommodating these worlds: Robert Hooke, the pioneer of microscopy, had acted as Boyle’s technical assistant, and Hooke argued that new optical instruments could restore the perfect faculties that Adam and Eve had enjoyed before the Fall.

Kirk might be talking about the past and about ancient superstitions, but he orients his material firmly in the present. Research into fairy lore, he argues, expands knowledge: “This intercourse betwixt the two kinds of rational inhabitants of the same earth,” he writes, “may be not only believed shortly but as freely entertained and as well known as… the discoveries of microscopes which were sometimes as great a wonder and as hard to be believed.”

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The Secret Commonwealth has no precursors; as an account of the fairies and their powers, it is uniquely rich and rare. This “essay of the nature and actions of the subterranean (and for the most part) invisible people heretofore going under the names of elves, fauns, and fairies, or the like… as they are described by those who have the second sight”, now stands as a pioneering piece of ethnographical anthology, whose peculiar interest has sharpened with distance as interest in the uncanny has grown.

Kirk discusses fairies’ eating habits, the services they perform for humans – mending shoes and sweeping the house and other activities (which led to the naming of the younger branch of the Girl Guides as the Brownies). He recounts their form of travel and seasonal migrations. In many ways, their society replicates that of humans – they live in houses, marry, give birth and they even die, his informants reported; and William Blake, a hundred years later, would see a fairy funeral. Kirk lingers on the idea of doubles: how we might each have a fairy counterpart, a

reflex-man… or co-walker, every way like the man, as a twin brother and companion, haunting him as his shadow, and is oft seen and known among men (resembling the original) both before and after the original is dead, and was else often seen of old to enter a house, by which these people knew that the person of that likeness was to visit them within a few days.

Kirk relates more of the fairies’ mischief – their stealing and souring milk – in terms similar to the Fairy who interrogates Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he tells of fears that they abduct nursing mothers to suckle their own children, leaving behind a phantom baby “like their reflection in a mirror”. If you should stumble upon them and reveal their secrets later, they will snatch you under enchantment to live with them. He lists the methods used to ward off such perils: a piece of cold iron in the cot, for fairies abhor this element, which lies near to hell in the underworld, as well as other charms. He describes how the fairy women spin “curious cobwebs, impalpable rainbows, and a fantastic imitation of… more terrestrial mortals.” How they do this, he adds, “I leave to conjecture.”

Robert Kirk’s ambiguous persuasions – does he really believe all this? How can he? – had an effect on his own afterlife. Around Aberfoyle, Kirk’s last parish, the story began to be told how the minister went out

walking one evening in his night-gown upon a Dun-shi, or fairy mount in the vicinity of the manse or parsonage, behold! hee sunk down in what seemed to be a fit of apoplexy, which the unenlightened took for death, while the more understanding knew it to be a swoon produced by the supernatural influence of the people whose precincts he had violated.

Walter Scott had the story from Kirk’s successor as minister in Aberfoyle; but Scott made it famous by retelling it in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830). He relates how at the time of Kirk’s sudden death his wife was carrying a baby, now destined to be born posthumously, and how after the funeral and burial of the minister in his churchyard, Kirk’s ghost appeared to a seer and commanded him to go to a kinsman of Kirk’s – Grahame of Duchray. The ghost commanded him, “Say to Duchray, who is my cousin… that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairy Land; and only one chance remains for my liberation.” The ghost of Kirk went on to promise that he would make another appearance at his posthumous child’s christening: “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.”

So it came about: at the ceremony, the ghost of Robert Kirk appeared while they were seated at table, but his cousin, Grahame of Duchray, was so stunned by the vision that he failed to move quickly enough and throw the cold iron to ward off Kirk’s invisible fairy captors. And so “it is to be feared that Mr Kirke still ‘drees his weird in Fairy Land’”. Kirk’s grave in the churchyard was empty, Scott was told. Scott sees this as a “terrible visitation of fairy vengeance”.

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Few believe in fairies, now or ever; many have believed that others believe in them, and at different times have engaged passionately by proxy in the phenomenon. Most of the accounts that have survived report incidents and adventures that occurred to someone else. This is the terrain of anecdote and old wives’ tales, of oral tradition, hearsay, superstition, and the shaggy dog story: once upon a time and far away among another people…

The greatest writers about fairylands – from Shakespeare to Christina Rossetti to Yeats – summon up Queen Mab, Oberon, and Robin Goodfellow or Puck in all their peculiar detail and woo their audiences to surrender to these “antique fables” and “fairy toys”, but they bend the material through dream frames that distance it from immediate experience. Like medieval kings who kept a ragged and filthy hermit at court to pray on their behalf, we – sceptical and worldly – need others to stand in for us, to prevent the deforestation and depopulating of fancy’s traditional territory.

JM Barrie dramatised this manoeuvre of belief by proxy in the 1904 play of Peter Pan, in the famous scene when the fairy Tinkerbell drinks poison and Peter turns to the audience and tells them to clap their hands to save her. This emotional blackmail – with its shameless pulling of heartstrings – remains fractured by the irony that however loud we clap to show our faith, Barrie isn’t sincere, and neither are we, and if the children are clapping with us, they are our dupes.

In the 21st century, inquiry into consciousness and altered states has intensified in the sciences on the one hand, while, on the other, fascination with belief, illusion and subjectivity’s inconsistencies increasingly characterises the concerns of writers and artists. The Cottingley Fairy photographs, taken by two young girls in the 1920s and authenticated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have inspired at least two novels and films, as well as several contemporary artworks, while Julian Barnes’s 2005 novel, Arthur & George, explores the many paradoxes in Conan Doyle’s character. Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials series features animal familiars, ghosts and harpies, has named his forthcoming novel The Secret Commonwealth in tribute to Kirk. (Pullman has described himself as “sceptical about everything but credulous about everything, too”.)

When the French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called, a decade or more ago, for the re-enchantment of the universe, they were defying the contempt for myth-making and magic that both Enlightenment thinkers and later interrogators of the Enlightenment such as Theodor Adorno had expressed in scorching terms (“Occultism is the metaphysic of dunces,” Adorno wrote in 1951). Enchantment had become the ambition of commercial entertainment – “some enchanted evening” is a typical debased Hollywood anthem. It trailed a whiff of deception, illusion, brainwashing – opiates of the imagination. But this concept of bastard fraudulence now offers a zone of interest, open for re-exploration. States of enchantment, whether wrought by fairies in 17th-century Scotland, or attributed to paranormal powers by Victorian psychic researchers, present ways of analysing consciousness and the self that can illuminate contemporary psychological concerns (such as cultic possession, recovered memory and alien abduction). Numerous contemporary novelists, from Stephen King to Margaret Atwood, reflect the revival of this occult approach to personal complexity.

But what connects Robert Kirk’s essay to us today is his spirit of active wonder, at once proto-scientific and more than scientific. He is also engagingly singular – a different voice and a fascinatingly unusual companion, confiding in us across the centuries. There is a sense of an enigma tugging at him personally and with some urgency: “Why,” Kirk asks, “is not the seventh son infected himself by that contagion he extracts from another?”

Puzzling over his inheritance and the beliefs and experiences of his neighbours and his flock, he gave his puzzlement literary expression of a rare order. His capacity to question wonderingly turned him into a remarkable investigator, whom people trusted; it made him, during a lifetime when religious dissension continued to scar society, a proponent of curiosity as a form of tolerance; it also turned him into the most absorbing interpreter of fairy lore, with a true storyteller’s gift of communicating a fantastic other world. 

“The Secret Commonwealth” is published in a new edition by NYRB Classics

Marina Warner’s most recent book is “Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists” (Thames & Hudson). She is currently working on a book about her father’s bookshop in Cairo

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion