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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


In October 1675 the Synod of Aberdeen issued this instruction to Church ministers in Aberdeenshire:

‘Act anent wizards and such who defame persons dead and alive. The said day there being divers complaints and regrats given into the Synod by severall brethren, that some under the pretence of trances or familiaritie with spirits by goeing with these spirits commonlie called the fairies, have spoken reproachfullie of some persons, whereof some are dead and some are living.

It is recommended by the Bishop, with consent of the Synod, to the Presbyteries and Ministers entrusted, carefullie to endeavour the suppression of that seduction by warning the people of the danger of it.’

Back In those superstitious times, many people sincerely believed in supernatural beings, be it witches, fairies, sea monsters, and mermaids. It is difficult for us to understand this now, yet, elsewhere in the world today, there are still substantial ethnic groups that believe in spirits, for example, in South East Asia. Many ethnic Chinese living modern life-styles still firmly believe in hundreds of superstitions, many supernatural in origin, which control their day-to-day lives. I found this out for myself when I spent a year in a Malaysian china-town.

Likewise our Aberdeenshire ancestors believed in hundreds of ancient superstitions including fairies, and took them deadly seriously. Understandably, the ministers of the Church actively tried to discourage such superstitions, but found it very difficult.

Fairies lived underground. You could always recognise the site of a fairy dwelling – a small hill or knoll where the grass was greener than the surrounding countryside. Dozens of fairy knolls or their Gaelic equivalent, sithean, are still recognised on todays maps. It was said that on moonlit nights the fairies would come out to play, dancing and frolicking on the green grass.

Not that humans dare call them fairies because these spirits did not like that. It was much safer to refer to them as ‘the fair folks’ or the ‘good neighbours’. No, you didn't want to upset them - bad fairies caused grievous trouble. They were notorious thieves and any mislaid object was blamed on them by humans. They could be kept at bay by iron objects around the house. This possibly derives from an ancient past when iron was discovered and seen to show mysterious properties. Iron scares spirits – it was said.

Mothers with new-borns lay in terror of fairies. The fairies had a great liking for human milk such that they would carry off the mother to get it. The child was also taken: the fairies were under obligation to pay tribute to the Devil, whereby giving him an infant served to pay off their debt.

The troublesome fairies could be deterred if both the mother and her new child were ‘sained’. A fir candle (one made from ancient wood derived from a peat bog) was lit and carried around the bed three times. If this could not be made to work because there wasn’t enough space around the bed, the fir candle was swung three times around the heads of the mother and infant. A Bible, bread, and cheese (or biscuit) was placed under the pillow and then all present uttered the chant, ‘may the almighty debar all ill from this woman, and be about her, and bless her and her child.’

The next step was to wait for the mother to recuperate so that she could be churched, that is, to make her first visit to a church following her confinement. The combination of ‘saining’ and ‘churching’ was considered enough to keep the fairies at bay. However, the child would only be considered truly safe once it was baptised. A close watch was kept on the child up until then. It couldn’t be called by name until baptised and nobody would dare ask it. Even at the ceremony itself the name would be written on a piece of paper and handed to the minister first.

If the mother was inattentive in the period before baptism could take place, she risked the fairies creeping in and swapping out one of their own sickly infants for the human baby. The first sign that this had happened was a change in the behaviour and well-being of the infant. A previously happy and healthy baby would, all of a sudden, start fretting and crying night and day, showing every sign that its health was dwindling away from then on. The baby was ‘dwining’. The immediate suspicion was now that the child had become a ‘changeling’. The healthy human child had been seized by the fairies and replaced with one of their own sick offspring.

To prove this was a drastic procedure. A roaring fire was stoked up by adding peats to the hearth. The child was placed as close as possible to it so as not to be burned, or else suspended in a basket hanging above the fire. Should the infant be a changeling the fairy imposter would then escape through the chimney uttering words of scorn on fleeing.

It was possible to get the fairies to return the original child. The suspected changeling was suspended over the hearth fire in a basket hung from the branch of a willow tree. If it was heard to scream, it was a changeling. The parents would hold on fast to the changeling to prevent it escaping. When a suitable occasion arose it was taken to the crossroads of four roads and a dead body carried over the changeling. This action ensured that the fairies returned the original child.

Reverend James Rust, Minister of Slains Parish Church, wrote about a changeling from near Cruden Bay.

‘I knew the woman, Mary Findlay, who died a few years ago at a great age... believed to be an elfin changeling.’

She had been taken as a child to a cairn of stones about 800 yards from the church, which was believed to be the site of several fairy knolls. Arriving at sunset and left overnight, the relatives watched at a suitable distance. Dishes of bread, butter, cheese, milk, eggs or poultry were laid out next to the child as a peace offering and incantations made. The food had disappeared by first daylight, the fairies were appeased and the human child restored.

All were now happy! Copyright Mike Shepherd 2022.

If you like my articles, why not read my latest book North Sea Heroes: True Stories from a Scottish Shore. In it are seven tales from the east coast of Scotland. 'Using rare original sources and well-researched analyses of events, Mike Shepherd has 'brought to life' epic adventures and historic events in and around the North Sea over four and a half centuries. Great reading.'

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The walls of the octagonal hall inside Slains Castle

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