Fairy Hills, Biodiversity & Heritage
Heritage & Conservation
Laviolette & Alastair McIntosh
First published in ECOS, Journal of the British Association of Nature Conservation, 18:3/4, 1997, pp. 2-8. The original published version has pictures of a Hill on the east side of the A9 a few miles north of Pitlochry, but if you shut your eyes, put your head to the turf, open your senses to the scent of the good earth, and let your mind sink down and “away to the Hill”, you won’t need it. Further work related to this material may be found at: [Celtic shamanism], [St Andrew & Scots Constitutional Theology], [The GalGael Peoples], [Irish Pilgirmage] and [Rotting Tree Faerie].
Patrick, from Canada, was one of my MSc students at the Centre for Human Ecology. This paper is mostly his writing and was a write-up of his thesis, which we had much fun with together. He’s currently (year 2000) completing a PhD on these sorts of things at London University. The story of how Patrick and I hit on him doing this topic is quite remarkable, having emerged direct from out of that “metaphor for the imagination” - the hollow Hill. We’d be happy to share it with readers, but only in person, and on provision of due libation - mine will be a bottle of Laphroaig, and the faeries will like it best after having first passed through the kidneys.
Fairylore in the British Isles has left significant
imprints upon the landscape. One such imprint in Scotland holds considerable
potential for conservation since it links a heritage component to nature
conservation. This article seeks to establish that certain distinct tree
clusters -- sometimes referred to as ‘fairy knowes’ -- are worthy of
conservation as cultural landscape features.
landscape is a novel in which we can read about a region’s cultural history.
Interpreting the cultural landscape is of interest to conservationists because
it leads to a better understanding of human relationships with the land. Such
knowledge in turn allows for management practices that
are sensitive to community needs, which is integral to any effective
conservation programme. In recent years conservationists, especially in the far
east, have realised how important sacred
groves have been in conserving natural remnants and assuring local support for
their protection.1 (N.B.
footnotes in this text were manually inserted, therefore not hyperlinked. They
may be found at end of this text). In
this essay we propose that a parallel cultural landscape feature exists in
Scotland in the form of wooded fairy knowes. Further, we build a context in
which this landscape feature’s ecological and heritage value make it an
excellent tool for conservation.
Fairy knowes: shaping a vision
are, and frequently have been, thought to possess or be possessed by divine or
mystical powers. On almost all cultural levels such spaces are moulded and
organised in ways that reflect a culture’s fundamental world-views.2
Attitudes to such places vary from fear and inapproachability to attraction
and reverence. Prominent amongst the many cultural landscape features of
Scotland are the numerous hills and mounds said to be the underground dwellings
of the fairy folk. Traditionally such places were viewed with apprehension and
fear by many, but have also been recognised as gateways to another world. Often
this has been a world of art and music leading Dr. John MacInnes of Edinburgh
University’s School of Scottish Studies to suggest that the fairy hill is a
“metaphor for the imagination”. 3
could refer to hundreds of the mounds and hills scattered throughout the
Scottish countryside as fairy knowes. Historically folk tradition rooted the
basis for identifying these places. This still lingers on in local recognition
of them. The decline of folklore beliefs, however, has meant that we must now
specify our criteria in recognising or defining such cultural landscape
features. Whereas the heightened fairy faith parlance of centuries past allowed
people to recognise these hillocks despite their physical variability, we now
see their cultural significance mostly by the imprints they have left on
Scotland’s place-names. Numerous hills and hillocks take-on various Gaelic
words that refer to the fairies and other mythical creatures such as Navity,
Neimheadh, Nemet, Sithe, and Sithean.4
places, however, demonstrate relatively few common physical properties that
would allow us to distinguish them within the landscape. As such, the typical
Scottish fairy knowe landscape feature, as we are defining it, is
a relatively small natural or artificial hillock, mostly wooded with
mature deciduous trees and/or Scots pine of at least one generation.
Additionally, such knowes are usually fairly circular and visually distinct from
their surroundings (Figs. 1&2). Our study of fairy knowes in Scotland (raths
in Ireland: meaning mound or small hill) also leads us to propose that to
identify a site as such
it must normally demonstrate the
first and ideally one or more of
the other following criteria. These should not be taken to preclude what might
be thought of as “dormant knowes,” where evidence suggests they were once
wooded but have since been felled:
i) trees, preferably indigenous species,
established for sufficient time for some species to have completed at least one
full life cycle;
ii) a site protected in full or in part by local totem or taboo;
iii) historical acceptance or folklore recollection;
iv) some form of archaeological feature.
(These will be scanned
in in due course).
1 Legend: A faerie knowe just north of Pitlochry on the east side of the A9.
This site contains two grave slabs, one engraved with the date 1760 and a bird
2 Legend: A newly felled fairie knowe on a golf course near Peebles.
Fairy knowe rationale
beliefs in Scotland ascribe typical fairy dwellings to caverns, hills, islands,
rocks, trees, water bodies, and wells. Certain taboos were often associated with
these places relating to the animistic belief that fairies inhabited them. Most
typically these are concerned with restricting their
access especially at liminal and threshold times such as dawn and dusk as
well as restricting the removal of earth, stones, and timber from them.
Generally these places were left undisturbed and shunned. The Rev. Robert Kirk
illustrates such taboos in his famous treatise on fairylore
The Secret Common-Wealth 1691: 5
“There be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people
think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from
them; supperstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell
yr [there]. And for that end (say they)
a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside everie church-yard, to receave their
souls, till their adjescent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fayrie hill”.
the Brythonic and the Gaelic Celtic traditions have repeatedly entangled the
fairy world with the land of the dead. This land, thought to exit underground,
revealed itself through such spirit haunts as barrows, tumuli, and other burial
places. The fairies and the spirits of the dead have therefore co-existed
spatially in these traditions. It follows that barrows, tumuli, and other
elevated areas came to symbolise the typical fairy abode. In Scotland and
Ireland this affiliation was stronger if the mound was visually isolated
probably because islands were ancient Celtic doors to the Otherworld.6
From this we see that fairy knowes had important social roles in providing
identifiable passageways to the Otherworld. They were places where the
mysterious and esoteric were grounded in order to explain the unknown and thus
alleviate fear. In many stories they are considered to be the home of the
original peoples of the Irish-Scots Gaelic continuum, the Tuatha de Danann -- the peoples of the mother Godess Anann, who fled
underground and became the fairies when Ireland was invaded by the Milesians --
progenitors of the modern day peoples.
inherent mysterious nature of fairies and wooded areas further meant that fairy
knowes served their local communities by providing social escape spaces and grey
zones. Consequently, they acted as means of maintaining certain spatial
boundaries within and between communities. Hence, these feared yet demarcated
features were tools in unconsciously managing contractile communal space.
strong bond has also traditionally existed between nature and fairy knowes.
Tradition-bearers saw the fairies as mediators between many things, one of which
was nature and humanity. For example fairy associations with plants meant that
certain species were reserved for their realm while others were for human use.
This suggests a basic conception of resource partitioning within the fairy
faith. As well as sharing resources
amongst themselves, the tradition-bearers also allocated resources such as
plants and space to the fairy race. Fairy hills were therefore a manifestation
of a culture’s association with nature.7 As unconscious mechanisms
of communal space management, another of their social functions related to
nature conservation since by taboo and fear they were protected from
cultural tradition has therefore left hundreds of semi-natural woodland remnants
throughout the Scottish countryside and some of our fieldwork has demonstrated
that many are still recognised as fairy knowes.8 This has also been
supported by our preliminary qualitative observations in
Co. Mayo, Ireland, during a human ecology field trip in May 1996.
J.M. Synge comments in his book, The
Aran Islands, that Mayo is more heavily populated with fairie than any other
county in Ireland. As such we suggest that Ireland in general and Co. Mayo in
particular also hold considerable scope for respectful research on fairy
habitations. Unfortunately however, the disappearance of certain folklore
traditions is accompanied in Britain and at a slower pace in Ireland by modern
land management practices. Since the value of fairy knowes is little recognised
the integrity of many such wooded sites have been lost in this shift, and we
believe that this is to the detriment of Britain’s and Ireland’s cultural
and ecological heritage. Few sights are more distressing to the sensitised eye
than a faerie knowe recently felled for some sort of land “improvement,”
like one the authors witnessed being felled in 1995 on the road between Peebles
and Edinburgh to extend a golf course (Fig. 2).
addition to their social roles, fairy knowes also serve important ecological
functions. Generally, vegetation patches demonstrate the biogeographical
characteristics of fragmented habitats. Habitat fragmentation causes either a
loss or gain of habitat heterogeneity depending on the level of discrimination.
Diversity is ideally favoured by contiguous habitat fragmented by natural
disturbance regimes. In a highly managed human-landscape, however, natural
remnants enhance landscape heterogeneity. Consequently, remnant habitats patches
(such as fairy knowes) provide a landscape with a) escape spaces, b) stepping
stone dispersal/migration islands, and c) discontiguous seral stages.9
of the other reasons that fairy knowes might be important biological landscape
features relates to their physical attributes. As we have seen, fairy knowes are
generally circular and occur on mounds or hillocks. Because of their shape,
these features minimise edge effect since circles are uniformly compact and have
the smallest edge to surface ratio of any shape per given volume. Realistically,
minimal edge effect is insignificant for most small fairy mounds given that they
are almost exclusively edge habitats (itself an interesting characteristic).
Edge effect does, however, reduce insular disturbance for the larger examples of
fairy hills such as Doon Hill and Faery Knowe in Aberfoyle, Central Stirling
District. The circular tree pattern of the knowes is significant in that the
binding nature of a round tree architecture gives these trees mutual support and
thus gives them a certain resistance to wind-throw disturbance.
swollen topography of a fairy mound exhibits two relevant characteristics.
Firstly, for a given space on the ground, the relative area of a hill
(semi-sphere) is larger than that of a site on flat ground due to the additional
vertical span of the circumference. Ergo, the increased area of a fairy hill
means that it possesses a larger biomass. This suggests that these sites may
possess a greater number of individuals for any given specie (reducing the local
extinction potential for those species) than a similar site of the same size but
with a smaller area. It also suggests that these sites may possess a greater
total number of species. Secondly,
a hill's many topographical gradients and aspects define various microclimates
and therefore enhance its insular habitat diversity. This increased habitat
diversity is again conducive to raising a site's niches and therefore its
exists in the conservation literature that wildlife and landscape conservation
can and should (wherever possible) occur in multiple objective contexts. Such an
observation is important since most small and distinct fairy knowes and similar
landscape features occur within the confines of private farms and estates. As
such their management will vary to accommodate different situations. These could
include grazing, shooting, and timber production, but generally this essay
advances conservation as the most pressing
and traditional designation, though this would not preclude amenity and
even an element of sensitive cultural tourism. It also suggests that such
conservation should steer towards maintaining their histo-cultural value and
associations with semi-natural woodland conditions, as well as enhancing their
habitat complexity and the diversity of the surrounding landscape.
fairy knowe's most visible attribute is its circular cluster of mature trees.
The viability of this characteristic is the prime objective for management.
Management recommendations therefore require the protection of regenerating
saplings during their stages of vulnerability. Given that fairy knowe trees are
usually broadleaves and/or Scot’s pine and given the historical fairylore
associations with certain plant species, a further recommendation is to ensure
that the regenerating understorey trees which will reach the sub-canopy
consistently include native species
such as apple, elm, hazel, holly, oak, rowan, yew and thorns (rowans should be especially favoured as a
sub-canopy specie because of its particular associations with fairylore where
its berries were thought to be a special food for the fairy folk). This may
require the occasional thinning of competing pioneer species in the sub-canopy
such as ash, birch, and most conifers. Generally, these would not establish
under a dense canopy, but many of the smaller fairy knowes are exclusively edge
habitats which allow sufficient light levels for the survival of such shade
intolerant species. Furthermore, even hazel, holly, and rowan may require some
thinning in those cases where larger growing deciduous species have not
established in the sub-canopy. Areas of extensive grazing, or other significant
disturbances, may require that the aforementioned species be planted as well as
protected. Out of sympathy with fairylore tradition, this method of enrichment
planting is preferred over thinning, pruning, and other invasive managerial
approaches since traditional beliefs about fairy knowes professed of particular
dangers in cutting or removing trees and plants from them. 10
have seen that fairy knowes once represented one of our culture's thresholds
into the spiritual realm of nature. As such these places were minimally
disturbed because they were both venerated and feared. Laissez-faire conservation is what has handed them down to us and
consequently might best preserve them for future generations. Accordingly, they
should be rendered free from excessive grazing, damaging recreative activities
and resource extraction. In advancing this perspective we posit that these sites
follow their natural course only if their viability is assured and they are left
undisturbed from grazing and extensive recreative activities. Fencing should
remain consistent with traditional methods and the 'image' of the sites. Small
stone walls and natural fences should therefore be favoured. Natural fences
would include hedges or other thicket-like shrub barriers of holly or gorse.
Once fenced these sites could readily become (re)colonised by woodland plants
and animals, thus increasing in habitat (perhaps even species) diversity. Given
the rare presence of totally unmanaged and ungrazed woodland remnants in the
countryside, they would also increase the landscape’s diversity. They might
also become more effective as dispersal islands and stepping stone habitats.
Finally, they could potentially attain an increased social significance because
they would represent rare semi-natural conditions and their unique management
would draw attention to fairylore. Adopting this strategy must be carefully
considered because certain circumstances outweigh the above mentioned benefits.
For instances, where hydrological conditions are favourable, grazed areas are
often significantly diverse in sedge, grass, and bryophyte species. In such
situations this diversity's extensiveness and rarity should be weighed against
the benefits stated above.
managing these sites in a landscape context one must consider their
distinctiveness in their surroundings. Therefore clearing vegetation around some
of these knowes will sometimes be necessary to enhance their visual integrity.
This procedure should focus on already existing sites and does not favour
artificially creating fairy knowes by clear-felling trees around hill tops since
this would be ecologically unsound and would undermine the historical rationale
for fairy knowes.
possibility of creating new fairy
knowes, especially in areas devoid of existing woodland or on dormant knowes,
should not be thrown out as unrealistic. A leading Indian conservationist Partha
Sarathy has recently demonstrated that the creation of new sacred groves has
been extremely successful.11 It might be pondered that observance of
totem and taboo and in particular, cultivation of an attitude of reverence
towards nature, are ways in which indigenous approaches to nature conservation
and sustainability are encoded through the implicit meaning of local practices.
There may be important lessons here for us to learn
too as a largely disembedded culture. This is
particularly so as the fruits of the fairy world are the arts - poetry,
music, storytelling, painting. Many places, such as the Isle of Eigg in the
Scottish Hebrides, have a faerie hill to which musicians were said to have put
their ear to hear and learn new tunes. Ireland’s greatest harpist, Carolan, is
said to have slept in a rath - by repute a dangerous activity, traditionally
believed either to turn you mad or make you into a poet. It is through the gifts
of the arts that we can come to
know and respect nature not just in our heads, but embodied in our hearts too.
In this sense it may be appropriate for us to re-learn respect for the fairy
realm; at least, in the sense of it being metaphoric for the imagination.
the public’s awareness of faerie knowes is crucial to ensuring their
wide-spread conservation. It is also an important part of changing social
attitudes and values. The benefits of this could range from enhancing love for
nature and places, to providing landscape familiarity, communal interaction and
perhaps even spiritual inspiration. 12 Indeed, it can take only a
little time spent contemplating in a fairy knowe for the mind to turn back to
ancient drudic times and speculate that perhaps these are remnant links with the
sacred groves of our own archaic past. At a more prosaic level we have already
noticed while travelling through the countryside that fairy knowe spotting is
more than just a good distraction for restless children in a car.
awareness is also essential if fairy knowe conservation is to obtain some form
of public policy recognition. The Woodland Grant Scheme is a likely source of
funding for compensating the expenses of those landcustodians who wish to manage
the fairy knowes on their property for conservation. Organisations such as
Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission, and the Farming, Forestry
and Wildlife Advisory Group for Scotland might therefore consider developing
funding mechanisms to promote their conservation.
have attempted to demonstrate that fairy hills deserve recognition as special
conservation sites not only because of their ecological attributes, but also
because they embody remarkable potential for rekindling communion with heritage,
place and nature. We have researched and written this article because we have
become enchanted by the Good People
and their at least symbolic representation of a more harmonious relationship
with nature and community. So who are the fairies? Might they be entities
existing in their own right in non-ordinary realms of consciousness? Or are they
an artistically anthropomorphised way of thinking of spirituality in nature -
the soul dimensions of birds and insects, trees and fishes, and even rocks and
wells and soforth? And could there be a sense, a very real metaphoric sense in
which, as Mike Collard of Future Forests near Bantry, Co. Cork,
says, “We are the faeries”? For at one level, fairies can be seen as
icons of the human psyche connecting deeply into the consciousness of nature: a
mechanism for knowing deep ecology. At another, buried deep in Celtic mythology,
it is worth recalling that the fairies were once the original gentle and
nature-connected peoples of this land, driven underground according to the Irish
Book of Invasions when our own forbears, the invading Milesians, settled
these shores of the North Atlantic archipelago perhaps some four thousand years
ago, synchronous with our great forests being lost. As such, the faeries can be
seen to symbolise that in us which was true nature wild; that of an era before
the advent of modern weaponry, destructively employed technology, and all the
aggression that humanity directs onto itself and nature in its vacuum of loss of
defeat of the Tuatha de Danann by the
Milesians is a metaphor for what has happened to human consciousness and its
bond with nature over the centuries. Figuratively, we drove the spirits of
nature underground, beneath the threshold of the mind’s eye. Subordinate to
reason. And in practical terms, perhaps we are now ready for the prodigal honour
of receiving them back ...
perhaps ready to integrate what may have been a pre-fully-conscious stage
of human evolution with all the growth in consciousness, outward civilisation
and individuation of the intervening period of struggle ...
perhaps ... as such ... we
are now ready to appreciate the faries; to believe in them as Peter Pan would
have said ... and not merely as a function of retarded childhood processes but
as a consequence of that maturity which enables co-existence of both the wisdom
of serpents and the gentleness of doves. Perhaps indeed we have an icon here for
the deep processes of evolution in human consciousness;
one through which the goal of sustainable livelihood can be achieved and
thereby allow nature to shine unabated for future generations - the better to reveal the true glory of Creation.
an aspiration is both practical in its call for restoration of the soil and
theological in requiring reaffirmation of soul. As Mike Collard suggests (pers.
com.), it comprises nothing less
than “resetting the seeds of Eden”.
Gadgil, M. (1987). Diversity: biological and cultural. Trends
in Ecology and Evolution, 2
Sitwell, O.F.G. and Bilash, O.S.E. (1986). Analysing the cultural
landscape as a means of probing the non-material dimensions
of reality. Canadian Geographer,
MacInnes, J. (1996). St Brides Day lecture 1.2.96
University of Edinburgh.
McNeill, F. M. (1989). The Silver Bough: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief. Vol. 1.
Kirk, R. (1691). The Secret Common-Wealth & a Short Treatise of Charms and Spels.
The University of Edinburgh
Libraries, Rare Books Section. (A more readily available edition of this
with commentary is published by Element Books as
R. J. Stewart’s “Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds.”
Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1911). The Fairy
Faith in Celtic Countries. Gerard's Cross, Collin Smythe Humanities Press,
1988 re- issue.
Narváez, P. (ed.). (1991). The
Good People: New Fairylore Essays. New York, Garland Publishing.
LaViolette, P. (1995) Fairy
Knowes of the Trossachs: a
Conservation Scenario for Cultural Landscape Features. MSc.
dissertation, Centre for Human Ecology, University of Edinburgh.
Joshi, N.V. and Gadgil, M. (1991). On the role of refugia in
promoting prudent use of biological resources.
Population Biology, 40: 211-229.
of bad luck even to the point of fatality caused by damaging a fairy rath abound
in the West of Ireland to this day. Local historian Paul Murphy of Kilbaha, West
Clare, points out how kinks in recently straightened roads are often to
negotiate respectfully around raths, which in that part of the world are not
necessarily circular. He recounts how workmen would refuse to cut into the rath
because, having done so experimentally as required by their managers, they found
they became ill (pers. com., 1995).
My own (McIntosh’s) first formal venture into a knowe was at Wester Foulis in
Perthshire, 1995. Our group included an old woman, Rita, from Glasgow. She
taught that the proper way to enter is first to hold hands outside it, and say
words to the effect: “Hello faeries. We have come to visit your home. We
promise to respect it and not cause damage or remove anything. Thank you for
letting us visit this place.” On this occasion we happened to be accompanied
by the education officer of WWF Malaysia. He said that in Malaysia he knows of
sacred groves that are approached with similar reverence, but he would never
have talked to white people about such things because he thought they would just
laugh at such traditional attitudes.
Sochaczewski, P.S. (1996). God’s own pharmacies. BBC
Wildlife, 14 (1): 68-71.
Hamilton, L.S. (ed.). (1993).
Ethics, Religion, and Biodiversity: Relations Between Conservation and Cultural
White Horse Press.
Patrick LaViolette is a recent graduate from Concordia University in Montreal Canada and the University of Edinburgh. This article was inspired by his MSc. dissertation at the Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh University.
Alastair McIntosh is teaching director for the MSc. course in Human
Ecology at Edinburgh University. His research interests include land reform,
psychospiritual aspects to ecology and community renewal, science policy and
ecofeminism. In October 1996 the Centre for Human Ecology becomes an independent
network of professional human ecologists.
We would like to
thank Dr. Ian D. Edwards of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden as well as Penny
Martin and John Gallager of
Scottish Natural Heritage (Beta Centre, Stirling) for their assistance with the
MSc. Dissertation upon which this article is based.
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