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 Fairy Hills, Biodiversity & Heritage


Fairy Hills:


Merging Heritage & Conservation




Patrick Laviolette & Alastair McIntosh


Now available in PDF of original - click here



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.




The 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

Places 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


One 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


These 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.


Figs. 1&2

(These will be scanned in in due course).


Fig 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 of prey.


Fig 2 Legend: A newly felled fairie knowe on a golf course near Peebles.


Fairy knowe rationale

Traditional 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”. 


Both 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.


The 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.  


A 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 development.


This 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).


Ecological functions

In 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


Some 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.


The 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 species richness.



Agreement 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.


A 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


We 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.


In 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.


The 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.


Raising 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.


Public 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.


We 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 cultural soul.


The 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.


Such 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”.




1   Gadgil, M. (1987). Diversity: biological and cultural. Trends  in Ecology and Evolution, 2 (12): 369-373.


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, 30: 132-145.


3   MacInnes, J. (1996). St Brides Day lecture 1.2.96  University of Edinburgh.


4   McNeill, F. M. (1989). The Silver Bough: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief. Vol. 1.  Canongate, Edinburgh.


5   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.”


6   Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Gerard's Cross, Collin Smythe Humanities Press, 1988 re-           issue.


7   Narváez, P. (ed.). (1991). The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. New York, Garland Publishing.


8   LaViolette, P.  (1995)  Fairy Knowes of the Trossachs:  a Conservation Scenario for Cultural Landscape Features. MSc.            dissertation, Centre for Human Ecology, University of Edinburgh.


9   Joshi, N.V. and Gadgil, M. (1991). On the role of refugia in            promoting prudent use of biological resources.      Theoretical       Population Biology,  40: 211-229.


10  Stories 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.


11   Sochaczewski, P.S. (1996). God’s own pharmacies. BBC Wildlife, 14 (1): 68-71.


12   Hamilton, L.S. (ed.). (1993). Ethics, Religion, and Biodiversity: Relations Between Conservation and Cultural Values.            Cambridge, 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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