I didn’t notice I was intruding. I was unaware that I was crossing a boundary. I kept pushing on, walking deeper into the landscape between the small green hills and strange stunted trees, pausing occasionally to check the map in my guidebook.
I paid no attention to the disagreeable buzz in my body that told me I was unwelcome. That buzzing felt repellent, like two magnets with the same polarity coming too close together, but I was arrogant and distracted. I didn’t heed it.
That’s when I got shoved.
It was like a concentrated burst of wind against my left side. Abruptly, I found myself on the ground, splayed out in the mud. Of course, the logical explanation was that I had slipped. Tripped on a rock or root that wasn’t there. But I knew—I’m not sure how I knew, but I did—that I’d been pushed.
I also knew that I wasn’t alone.
I’m opening myself up to your derision by telling this story. I fear my descriptions might seem cartoonish. Will you think I’m a credible source—a reliable narrator—if I tell you that the strange individual that pushed me had an aristocratic vibe and was wearing a greenish hat? I want to explain that I’d never had an experience like that before. Also, that I didn’t see him with my physical eyes. I was aware of him with a different kind of sensory perception. People in the Highlands might call it ‘second sight’.
The personage who had suddenly materialized beside me was tall and very slim. Or perhaps he just seemed tall. From where I was, lying on the ground at his feet, he appeared to be at least five or six feet in height, but somehow he felt taller than that. Regal. Definitely male. As mentioned, he had on a greyish-green hat. And he’d pushed me.
The other thing I noticed was his disinterest. It was as if I were an ant he’d just flicked off his trouser leg. He’d already forgotten me, even though the two of us were entirely alone there together between the green, green hills.
Despite his indifference, I must have attracted the attention of some of his kin, because that was the moment the strange harassment began. Wherever I went in the Scottish Highlands and Islands after that, they were there, changing things, stealing my stuff, altering realities. They chased me all the way up to Orkney where, one horrible night in an ancient water mill, they tried to take me to wherever it is they live. I fled back home to Canada after that and was safe on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, as soon as I left the Highlands, driving south as fast as I could toward Glasgow Airport, the haunting ceased.
When I got home, I felt like a changeling. Ghostly and insubstantial. I didn’t want to tell anyone about my experiences. Who would believe me? I spent the next six months in gradations of collapse: brooding, not sleeping, eating bags of crunchy snacks and drinking too much coffee.
I tried to channel my bewilderment into research. Rationality was soothing. I discovered a study that suggested there may be an ‘autosomal dominant inheritance pattern’ associated with second sight. The author implied a genetic origin for clairvoyance, which would account for the high number (10–33%) of people living in the north of Scotland claiming to have it. The paper said that blood-related family members are more likely to report having second sight than non-related individuals, but it was clear to me that shared beliefs and mythologies within families could easily account for that.
I found a book called The Gaelic Otherworld. Its author, John Gregorson Campbell, travelled the Highlands and Islands transcribing Gaelic-speaking people’s stories in the 19th century. Campbell refers to both ‘fairies’ and ‘elves’ in his English translations of these accounts, but he makes it clear that in Gaelic they are the Sidhe (pronounced ‘shee’). It turned out that the experiences I’d had in Scotland with the Sidhe were absolutely unextraordinary from a folklore perspective. My paranormal holiday had been a textbook case, just misplaced in time by several hundred years.
My understanding about the universe had been adequate before I left for Scotland, but afterwards it wasn’t. An actual fairy tale had upended all the rules. The sediment of fact was no longer lying at the bottom of the river where it should be, but was suspended, causing everything to feel muddy and obscure. My worldview was warping. It felt incomplete. I tried to figure out where this partial understanding of the workings of the world had come from.
My ancestors started settling in Victoria, British Columbia in the 1850s. They were some of the first colonizers in lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ territories. As a young person, I tried to imagine a relationship with land that was fully interdependent and uninterrupted for thousands upon thousands of years. How strong and deep and wide and alive that relationship would be. How palpable the hum of connection. As a settler, I believed the only way I could imagine Indigenous peoples’ relationship to place was through the feeling I had when I was in Victoria, where my family had lived for a scant seven generations. Whenever we travelled south to Victoria where my grandparents lived, I felt a resonance with the land there. A happy harmonious hum in my body.
On our trips to Victoria we’d always go to Sealand of the Pacific to watch the captive orca whales do tricks. We’d also visit the Royal BC Museum. When the First People’s exhibit opened at the museum in 1977, I’d sit on one of the upholstered cubes that were arrayed in a dark foyer at the top of a dimly lit staircase. The cubes were arranged in front of a glass wall display case full of carved and painted Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish and Haida masks. Those masks would appear and disappear, illuminated and then returned to darkness, as the spotlights in the display turned on and off. I listened to the audio-recorded stories that played on perpetual loop, which spoke about the mask’s supernatural origins.
Those masks and stories didn’t come from a world I recognized. My understanding of the nature of reality twisted and frayed whenever I sat in that gallery, watching the masks flicker in and out of sight. The feeling was unsettling.
When I finally travelled to the Anglo-Celtic Isles, I realized that my conceptions about connection to land, which had seemed nuanced and informed, were deficient. There’s a spiritual element to the relationship humans have with place that can’t be adequately described by anybody’s anthropology. It has to be experienced directly.
In an ancient water mill on Orkney, near the Standing Stones of Stenness and the neolithic village of Skara Brae, I found myself surrounded by the Sidhe. At some point the old mill had been converted, creating rooms to let out to tourists. I was up all night in one of those rooms, barricaded in my bed, growling like a terrorized dog, refusing to be taken.
There were twelve or fifteen of the Sidhe in the room with me. They had the same slim, tall-seeming bodies I’d seen before. At first, they were grouped by the windows that overlooked the mill pond. Three or four of the figures in front were clearer; the rest seemed partially blurred, as if by mist. I couldn't make out their faces and they didn’t speak. They had come to take me. There was no question about their intent.
I heard the fairy music first, then noticed them in the room. That music was terrifying. As awful as losing everything I loved and as irresistible as having all my dreams come true. It was entirely instrumental, but not made by any instruments I knew. ‘More melodious than human skill and instruments can produce,’ is how John Gregorson Campbell describes it.
Campbell shares an account told to him by a woman from the Isle of Tiree about her experience with the Sidhe as a child:
Two children, a brother and sister, went on a moonlight winter’s night to Kennavara hill to look after a snare they had set for little birds in a hollow near a stream. The ground was covered with snow, and when the two had descended into the hollow, they heard the most beautiful music coming from underground, close to where they were standing. In the extremity of terror both fled. The boy went fastest, and never looked behind him. The girl was at first encumbered by her father’s big shoes, which she had put on for the occasion, but, throwing them off, she reached home with a panting heart not long after her brother. The story was told by her when an old woman. She never forgot the fright the Fairy music gave her in childhood.
Likewise, I’ll never forget the fright the fairy music gave me. Maybe one day I’ll be an old woman telling my stories about encountering the Sidhe. Here’s what I might say, over a nice frothy pint, if you’re buying:
My body seemed to condense in the presence of the Sidhe, becoming heavier, like a burden I could easily shed if I wanted to. My perceptions similarly narrowed and focused solely on the threat that had appeared in the room. Dread prickled up my arms. I backed up against the headboard of the old four-poster bed in that ancient mill, my shoulders hunched in a defensive simian shape. My jaw was quivering and my teeth were gnashing like a wild animal. My hands formed into claws, ready to stave off whatever came at me...
For a decade afterwards, the same panicked feeling would appear in my body whenever I remembered that long night. Thinking about it made it difficult to move or breathe.
…the standoff with the Sidhe lasted until dawn. They spread through the room, barely discernible in the shadows, surrounding the bed. I’d been raised without religion, but I prayed industriously that night. I implored all the benevolent beings to come and protect me, and I had the sense that something heeded my call. I wasn’t entirely alone in my vigil. As soon as the sky lightened, I left the Highlands, permanently. I caught the first ferry to the mainland and drove south. It seemed the Sidhe could not travel past a certain point, or perhaps they didn’t care to. By the time I reached Glasgow, the world had rebooted. All of the familiar, mundane components had stabilized. No otherworldly beings disturbed me. Space-time behaved as it should.
Initially I believed the Sidhe had tormented me for their own obscure and selfish reasons. Now I wonder if they were (also) reminding me that humans haven’t always lived alone in a world devoid of magic. I thought the Sidhe were haunting me, but I’ve realized that what I’m really haunted by is our colonial history.
I recently read a poem by the Irish poet Frank Dullaghan called Oíche na Gaoithe Móire (Night of the Big Wind), which describes the night the Sidhe left Ireland during a severe storm in 1839. Here’s an excerpt of that poem:
It was the great leaving. The Sidhe, the Irish fairies,
who lacking wings, travelled on the back of winds
they raised, had left Ireland in mighty numbers.
For sure, there were not many of them left when
that night was over—hay ricks scattered, Hawthorn
and Rowan whipped to shreds, and the music and
lights that were sometimes witnessed around
fairy forts, no longer seen. It was a catastrophe.
Less than a decade later, a blight would come
on the potato crop, and famine would send
families into the west in coffin ships…
The Irish Times refers to the Night of the Big Wind as the most destructive storm in recorded history. According to local stories from that time, the English fairies invaded Ireland that night, and the wingless Irish Sidhe fled by calling up the sidhe chora (magic winds) to whisk them away. The mass exodus of the Irish Sidhe required ferocious gales that destroyed homes and flattened forests across the country. Before I encountered the Sidhe, I’d have thought that explanation was charming, antiquated and superstitious. Now I wonder why the English fairies invaded Ireland in 1839.
By the 1830s, England had industrialized. Foetid slums and factories had ruptured the old land-based beliefs and practices. The places where people and fairies had always coexisted had been deforested and disenchanted. Maybe the fairies left England seeking the last vestiges of the ancient green, magic places. Perhaps their survival depended on this emigration and they considered the displacement of the Indigenous Irish Sidhe to be a necessary evil.
The Night of the Big Wind preceded the potato famine by a few years, which in its turn caused a desperate relocation of Irish people to Canada and the United States. Some of those immigrants were my ancestors. My English and Scottish ancestors also found their way to Canada, escaping displacement and looking for a home. All those weary people arrived on the east coast of Turtle Island. They kept pushing west, deeper into the landscape, colonizing and industrializing as they went. They didn’t seem to notice they were intruding. They brought their legacy of disenchantment with them and then taught it to their progeny, including me.
Note: Oíche na Gaoithe Móire was originally published in Rattle #79 Tribute to Irish Poets, Spring 2023.