Chaplain to the Fairy Queen

Creative journalism by Elizabeth Angus

It’s a sunny spring Saturday, and I’m headed up a Fairy Hill. The way is not long, but the path in places is steep. I’m recovering from illness, and the exertion makes me light-headed.

Quick movement at my feet, half-seen. A swift flitting across the path. Probably dead leaves in the breeze. Probably my dizziness. Probably not elves, fauns or fairies.

I’m looking, rather optimistically, for the footprints of the Reverend Robert Kirk. He was the minister here in Aberfoyle, and my path to the hill has taken me past the Old Manse. Not, sadly, the same manse which Kirk lived in – it has been rebuilt since his day – but quite possibly the same manse in which Sir Walter Scott wrote The Lady of the Lake and kicked off tourism in the Trossachs.

The Reverend used to walk this path daily. Doon Hill, which is its proper name, is not far away from the old church – what could be more natural than the minister taking a gentle perambulation around his parish every evening after his dinner?

Nothing at all – except that Robert Kirk used to wander up this fairy mound in his nightgown, and lie with his ear to the ground, listening for the Little People. Sometimes he would stay for hours, until his wife came looking for him.

In 1691 Kirk wrote a manuscript essay called The Secret Commonwealth, which is still in print, and which I am clutching a copy of as I follow the worn, muddy path. This treatise was the conclusion of a lifetime’s interest in the supernatural – a matter-of-fact account of the lives of fairies, collected from parishioners who claimed to have the second sight. The Reverend seemingly saw nothing incongruous in juxtaposing a belief in a Christian God with a belief in more otherworldly creatures:

‘They are said to have aristocratical rulers and laws, but no discernible religion, love, or devotion towards God, the Blessed Maker of All.’

I ponder this apparent dichotomy as I continue my way upwards. The wooded hill is peaceful, yet vibrant with the onset of spring. There is little sound apart from birdsong and the wind in the branches. I fancy I feel a spirit of enchantment about the place. It would not take much to believe, as Robert Kirk apparently believed, that this mound is inhabited by fairies.

The wind dies for a moment; the sun is warm on my hair. Suddenly I want to lie down right here; curl up; fall asleep for centuries. I feel so tired. The skin prickles across the top of my back: I feel suddenly spooked, and I push onwards.

Abruptly I reach the summit. The path broadens into an open space under the oak trees, perhaps forty feet across. Bare forest floor beneath my feet; brown, dead leaves; pine cones.

I stare.

All around the edges of the clearing, the oak and holly trees are festooned with strips of rags and ribbons. People write their wishes on these cloths and tie them to the branches for the Little People to grant. As I look closer, I see that it’s not just rags: there are wind chimes, amulets, pieces of paper. Tibetan prayer flags, sunglasses, scarves.

The wind caresses them. Fairy tinkling.

And in the middle of this space stands the Minister’s Pine.

It’s a peculiar vision. The tree is girdled with string and ribbons. From these belts dangle an array of wishes, turning the pine into some bizarre hula dancer. I approach curiously and read some. Wishes for happiness, for long life, for an easy death for terminally-ill loved ones. Wishes for boyfriends, for money, for decent birthday presents. Some are folded for fairy eyes only. Others hang loose for the world to witness. Further offerings lie on the ground under the tree: shells, model fairies, pennies. A tiny plastic pineapple.

I sit on the feet of the pine, and lean back into the wishes. What do I expect? Some supernatural encounter with the Reverend Robert Kirk? I close my eyes.

It’s a warm evening on Wednesday the 14th of May. The year is 1692, and the Reverend Kirk is about to leave the manse for his habitual after-dinner stroll. His wife, one hand caressing her extended belly, lays her other hand gently on his arm.

‘Dinnae gang oot the nicht, Robert. Bide here wi’ me.’

‘Whit’s the matter, my dear? Are ye no’ weel?’

She looks beyond him through the open door and sees the Fairy Hill, dark in the gloaming. She shivers, though the night is mild.

‘No, Ah’m weel enough. But Ah hae this oorie feeling… bide at hame, Robert!’ 

The minister looks down into her shadowed face and frowns. He glances out of the door and frowns again.

‘Fancies and imaginings, woman! Get back tae the fireside. I’ll be back hame presently’.

He stoops his tall body to kiss her cheek, lifts his walking stick and strides out of the door in his nightgown.

And in the best story-telling tradition, he is never seen alive again. His pregnant wife, stomping up the hill to tell him to come home, discovers him lying dead beneath the tall pine. Perhaps right where I am now.

The belief soon arose that the minister’s manuscript, giving away so many of their secrets, had incurred the wrath of the fairies. In retribution they stole him away, leaving behind a stock: a piece of wood which had been glamorized to resemble his body. His grave, which lies in the old Aberfoyle kirkyard, does not hold Robert Kirk.

The big old pine tree, against which I am leaning, does. The Reverend Kirk has found eternal life, and is trapped forever within this tree – body and soul. So the rumour goes, anyway. I like this rumour, so I snuggle more comfortably against the bole and daydream a little more.

It is not long after the funeral, and one of Kirk’s relations, who is gifted with the second sight, is nodding by the fireside. Something causes him to look up, and there before him is the apparition of the Reverend Kirk.

‘Robert! It canna be – Ah wis there when we buried ye!’ 

‘It’s me, richt enough. I’m alive, but the Fairy Queen has taken me for her Chaplain. I’m her prisoner forever, unless ye help me.’

‘Whit can Ah dae?’

‘Gang to my cousin, Graham of Duchray. Tell him my son will be born soon, and I will appear at the christening. Graham maun be there. When he sees me, he maun fling an iron dirk over my head, and I will be returned to this world. Tell him!’

The christening duly takes place. A small congregation gathers in the old church within sight of Doon Hill. Graham of Duchray watches the widow Kirk, dressed in mourning, as she gently rocks her infant son. Suddenly he sees Robert Kirk, standing beside his wife, and staring straight at him. Graham cannot believe his eyes, but the man with second sight nudges him and whispers ‘There he is, man! Whaur’s yer dirk?’

Graham reaches towards his belt, then hesitates. The seer dunts him again, none too gently. ‘Whit are ye waiting for, man? Throw it!’

Graham’s face is pale. ‘I canna do it. What if it hits the widow?’

When they both look up again, the apparition has vanished. 

Graham of Duchray was too late, and the Reverend Robert Kirk is now a prisoner of the fairies for all time.

A buzzard screams, and I open my eyes. A motorbike putters past on the road below. Close, but not here, not intrusive. Part of another world, not this one. The trunk of the pine shelters me from the snell wind, the sun is warm and I’m losing track of time. I feel reluctant to move – maybe the fairies are claiming me as well. Already I’ve been here an hour. I gaze upwards into the branches of the tree, brown against the blue sky, and think about the tradition behind the wishes. Cloutie Trees, Cloutie Wells. Our ancestors used to tie rags to branches at sacred places. As the rag rotted away, so too would the affliction you were seeking help for. This pre-Christian practice has managed to survive, without much variation, into modern times, just as Robert Kirk’s fairies managed to survive alongside seventeenth-century religious beliefs.

I realise I have a strong urge to write a wish myself, but I have no pen; and besides, it’s time to go. As I leave the clearing I look back at the Minister’s Pine, and I wonder if he really is trapped inside it. Then I smile at myself for entertaining such ridiculous thoughts.

I take a different, less-used path on the way down, which snakes around to join the first. In the lee of the summit now, the sheltered air is heavy and warm. Enchanting.

Near the bottom of the hill, my way passes between two rocky conglomerate piles. Huge jumbled slabs of stone lean against each other, some split to display crystalline centres. The outcrops are crowned with deep, deep moss, starry wood anemones sparkling against the green. Slender oaks spring from the spaces between the stones.

If entrances to Fairy Hills exist, they surely look like this.


Grateful thanks to the Wee Ginger Dug for once again letting me sully his airwaves with fanciful nonsense.

If you want more ramblings, come along to and see what’s happening. The blog’s very new and I’m just finding my feet, but you’re all welcome!

23 comments on “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen

  1. gavin says:

    If we are all creations o’ an Almichty, why not the Fairy Folk and aw’ their ilk?
    Trolls, for example, abound in the comments sections of our colonial press.

    • gavin says:

      Tho’ only the nasty cybernats spring to the gaze of the likes of Andrew Neil and the BBC.
      CyberBritNats are apparently invisible !

  2. macart763 says:

    Thanks Betti, enjoyed that. Our culture has a rich seam of such tales and I must admit to being an absolute sucker for them.

    As an aside, this is my last posting as temporary Ed, the heid maister should be back in the chair after the weekend. Thanks to the generous response from contributors, Paul should have one or two more left over for a rainy day and a big thank you to all who responded.

  3. diabloandco says:

    Thank you Elizabeth. I walked my own fairy glen in my imagination as I read your piece, it calmed me.

  4. Mosstrooper says:

    Thank you for that Elizabeth. That just perfectly reminded me of the time I was up the Hill. My last stravaig was late in the year and as I stood there the wind soughed through the trees and the place went still. My friend gave a shiver and asked that we go back to the car, which we did taking the same route as yourself. My friend asked me if I believed that the Rev Kirk was trapped there and I could only reply to her that It is a lovely peaceful place to spend eternity.

  5. James Cassidy says:

    Great description. Your writing reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s descriptions in some of his novels. Great talent. I will certainly be visiting your blog.

  6. Beautifully written. I come across many of such ribbon adorned trees and feel honoured to have found them. Nearest Fairy hill to me is at Eskdalemuir just outside the Samye Ling temple. The Buddhists asked the fairies permission to build the temple and gave them Fairy hill. I think it is slightly further down. But it is a joy

    • benmadigan says:

      tying ribbons and and other small things to certain trees is also common in some parts of ireland. it always seems to me that the custom echoes back to devotion to the old celtic gods who were displaced by Christianity but who live on in folk tales and folk memories.

  7. Leslie English says:

    Thank you for an amusing little piece, it brightens up a pleasant summers day.

  8. emmylgant says:

    Oh How I loved this piece!
    In my part of the world it is said that a soul trapped in a tree is released when the bark is touched with love and compassion… Next time?

  9. Dave M says:

    Thank you for this lovely piece. Here in Argyll there are many places which seem to have “something of the faery folk” about them .

  10. Maggie Craig says:

    Loved this, have long been fascinated by the Secret Commonwealth. And there is a clootie well there?

  11. John S Warren says:

    The Reverend Robert Kirk died in 1692. The Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy in 1697 (he was hanged for carelessly promoting the ideas of Spinoza in public). Later in 1697, following a trial of twenty-four accused (including women and children), seven people were hanged and burned at the stake for alleged witchcraft in Paisley.

    The tragic Aikenhead’s fortuitous legacy, I think, was David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment. Kirk’s legacy was quite other; but perhaps it is to be found eventually in the strange work of the Congregational minister George MacDonald (1824-1905), who was the acknowledged inspiration of CS Lewis; and in the phantasies of David Lindsay (1878-1945), who probably in turn influenced Tolkein. I have left out of account here the later eccentricities of Arthur Conan-Doyle, who did indeed believe in fairies.

    This is the nature of our perplexing, arresting, strange and remarkable little Scotland; it is unfortunate that more Scots are not aware of our contradictory heritage, that is too deeply buried under an over-promoted but certainly prosaic, over-conformist and sometimes witless Anglo-British culture.

  12. andygm1 says:

    The Reverend Kirk’s grave lies in the old churchyard next to the roofless kirk.

    My wife’s parents lived very close to Doon Hill (which, incidentally, is not necessarily the Fairy Knowe. Some of the older villagers told me that the actual Knowe is further on along the track to Gartmore) for forty five years and I have been walking up Doon Hill since 1974. There were never pieces of rag or clouts of any sort hung up there until the last ten years or so when the practice appears to have been imported from elsewhere. So there is no tradition of rag tying at this spot whatsoever.

    • andygm, that’s really interesting. I did wonder how recent a practice it was…. as I said below, (before I read your post), I met a woman who claimed to be its originator about 40 years ago. However, it is still a strange-feeling place, with or without the rags….
      Yes, Fairy Knowe is closer to Gartmore. From memory, it and Doon Hill are both marked on the OS 1:25 map. I don’t stay too far away, and I keep meaning to check out Fairy Knowe too…
      I wonder who started the rag-tying tradition then, and why?

  13. Thanks, everyone – glad folk enjoyed it.

    Maggie, there isn’t a clootie well as such – insofar as there isn’t a well. But people are treating the Minister’s Pine, and the surrounding trees, in the same manner: leaving rags etc. I don’t know how long that’s been happening there. I met a woman who claimed that she and her brother had started tying ribbons there in the late 60s/early 70s and then the trend had burgeoned. But maybe they only built on something which had always happened, but on a lower-key level….

    And John, we certainly do have a chequered relationship with things supernatural: and a shameful history of persecution with regard to witch trials.

    • Maggie Craig says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth, what an interesting discussion this has provoked. I’ve been a few times to the clootie well at Munlochy in the Black Isle, maybe you know it. It’s a healing well and people continue to dip garments associated with the ailing part in the spring and then hang them from the trees, baby’s bibs, men’s underpants (one set I know for definite because the man had testicular cancer, sadly the magic didn’t work), women’s tights etc. I find it quite an eerie place.

      Don’t know how long the custom has continued there but there’s a whisper of a story that Jacobite soldiers fleeing Culloden washed their wounds there and they healed quickly.

      There’s another clootie well just down the hill from Culloden battlefield, in the woods on the other side of the road, although when we were last there a few years ago the spring was a bit stagnant looking. My mother told me that people used to go out there from Inverness on Mayday, a story confirmed by a lady, now passed on, who knew of that going on up until WW2.

      I once wrote a wee playlet about the witches of Pollok, thought about writing more on the subject but when I started researching further was repelled by the cruelties meted out to these women.

      • Maggie, a quick thought – I think the cruelties you uncovered during your research are the very reason you should keep writing about the subject – people should know.

        • Maggie Craig says:

          Oh, I know Elizabeth, but it’s hideous stuff. Some of the stuff I read I wish I could unread. Man’s inhumanity to man, or mainly woman in the case of the (alleged) witch burnings. I think Scotland was one of the most “enthusiastic” countries about those during the height of the witch hunts/witch craze.

          I’m always very moved by the wee witches’ well at the foot of the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle in memory of the women who perished. And by Janet Horne who was the last to be burned as a witch in Scotland in Dornoch, 1722, I think. Poor old soul was away with the fairies and warmed her hands at the fire.

          Did a local history booklet last year during which I found lots of info about witches, kelpies, old superstitions etc. It is fascinating.

  14. Maggie Myles says:

    Thank you for that lovely piece of writing. I was enchanted on many levels. Beautiful prose.

  15. Capella says:

    An enchanting story. What a rich store of history, drama and storytelling we have. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we also had our own broadcasting service!

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