"he had been in the hands o’ the fairies when he was young"

The fairies of folklore are capricious beings whose behaviour towards humans ranges from mildly mischievous to outright malicious. A popular belief in Scotland was that fairies, being fond of pretty babies, would steal them away from their homes if they had not been baptised. As in the case of Robin Ruthven, some of those kidnapped made their way back to the mortal world but retained a heightened supernatural awareness as a legacy of their experience.

Speculation concerning the origins of fairies suggests that they stem from pagan deities and as such they are often conceived of in opposition to the Christian beliefs which deposed them. As the parable of Auchtermuchty suggests, there was no such division in contemporary rural Scottish thought, in which strong religious sensibilities were steeped in the ideas promulgated by oral tradition. Fairies, talking crows and the devil of Christianity all emerge from the same wellspring of common belief. It was even thought that “The queen of fairyland was a kind of feudatory sovereign under Satan, to whom she was obliged to pay kave, or tithe in kind”. 


The Fairies’ Banquet, 1859
Public DomainThe Fairies’ Banquet, 1859 - Credit: John Anster Fitzgerald