Fairy Forts, Dens, & Glens: When Places Are Preserved by Mythical Belief
One of the Cottingley Fairy photographs from 1917 (via lhup.edu)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies. While his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes would have debunked the 1917 Cottingley Fairy photographs in short order, Doyle championed the authenticity of the images of two young girls with the tiny flying beings. He, like thousands of others, wanted to believe that modern technology could prove that the magical folklore that was so much a part of his culture heritage was real.
Of course, the Cottingley Fairy photographs were not real, but the genuine belief in fairies and other magical creatures that they tapped into still permeates northern Europe.
Frances Griffiths with the Cottingley Fairies (via Wikimedia)
While the believed appearance of fairies has evolved over the centuries, lately it’s been somewhat settled that they are creatures of magic, appearing young and attractive with gossamer wings. It should be noted that in this belief, fairies are a fully separate species from humans and exist primarily in a different dimension, though that dimension is close enough that the thin veil between worlds can occasionally reveal them to human eyes. There is also a consensus that humans should not anger fairies, since everything from flood, pestilence, disappointing rugby seasons, and the recent bankruptcy of a billionaire have been blamed upon them.
In an effort to avoid the wrath of the fairies, communities of the British Isles and Ireland have protected the fairy “homes,” and as a result have preserved sites of great beauty from development and destruction, which is a kind of magic in itself. Conversely, more than a few lovely spots have become damaged and even threatened with destruction by enthusiastic fairy hunters.
A 3rd or 4th century ring fort in Ireland (photograph by amanderson/Flickr user)
Ireland’s Fairy Forts — more properly known as ring forts — are the remains of strongholds and other dwellings dating back as far as the Iron Age. However, local tradition holds that fairies make their home in these ring forts and terrible luck will come to anyone who participates in their destruction. These folk beliefs seem to only date back to the 12th century, but they were strong enough to allow thousands of ring forts to grow wild as the rest of the land was being cultivated for human use.
In modern times, folk beliefs alone have often not been enough to preserve these archaeological sites. In Iceland, protection of elf homes (elves being supernatural cousins of faeries) is codified into building codes and even made a semi-official vocation at Elf School, and yet some cynics avow that non-believing environmentalists might be exploiting folk beliefs to protect the island’s pristine eco system.
One the other hand, Irish fairy advocates have focused on promoting laws preserving sites of ecological and historical importance, while publicly warning of the consequences of angering fairies. One such example, the Ballyalban Ring Fort, has been preserved for historic reasons, but local fairy communicators hold that it’s guarded by a pooka in the shape of a pony. Pookas are malevolent fairies which take the shape of animals. There are also tourist attractions like Brigit’s Celtic Garden preserving fairy forts for human enjoyment and protection, and their fairies are apparently far more benevolent.
The Glen (photograph by Heather James)
Faeries also purportedly like to populate wooden glens. A visit to the Glen, a tiny valley tucked into Knocknerea Mountain in Sligo, Ireland, also holds promise for fairy hunters. The mountain itself has multiple pre-historic sites, including a likely but still un-excavated passage tomb at its base. The Glen also contains a stone cairn that legend calls the grave of Queen Maeve — a figure from Irish Mythology often equated and/or conflated with Queen Mab of the fairies.
Unlike the ring forts, the Glen has required protection from fairy seekers as much as developers; with curious hikers and tourists carrying off stones from the cairn, locals have started conservation efforts to protect the site. Lately, travelers have been told that bringing a rock to Maeve’s Cairn will bring one good luck, which has caused the ever-evolving site’s rock pile to be replenished.
The cairn of “Queen Maeve’s Tomb” (photograph by Kelly H.)
Meanwhile, deep in the Glen Brittle Forest on the Isle of Skye is a series of pristine waterfalls pools that humans can only reach by hiking on foot. Stunning in their natural beauty and evocative of fantasy worlds, these Fairy Pools attract hikers and fairy hunters, as well as those people who enjoy an icy dip. While some sites might discourage tourists, the proprietors of the local hostel and B&Bs often outright encourage — some would say even invent — mythology surrounding this highly isolated and fantastical looking spot.
A Fairy Pool on the Isle of Skye (photograph by Christian Hacker)
Imagination also plays a part in the history of Dunino Den. In the woods behind a Christian Church in Dunino, Scotland, is a spot that has long been associated with ancient pagan worship and the presence of fairies. A well sits atop the den, with a vivid but totally unconfirmed legend that it was a site for human sacrifice. The lack of historical veracity hasn’t stopped fairy hunters and neopagans from leaving all sorts of modern offerings to the gods, like booze, cigarettes, panties, coins, and ribbons. Fantastical and celtic graffiti, old and new, also defaces (or enhances) the den’s rock face.
Similarly, the ecologically and geologically precious St. Nectan’s Kieve, with is waterfall, rock basins and arches, also swirls with stories of being a home to fairies that inspire visitors to create shrines out of ribbons, crystals, and other ephemera. While all this generates a complicated relationship with a real natural and historic place, the mythical creature attention may also help it and these other places survive.
1930s fairy reenactors (via National Library of Ireland)
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