The ancient stories about the fairies were collected together in Cornwall by William Bottrell (1816–1881) when he realised that the county was changing so rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, that the old tales would all soon be lost if he didn’t record them during his lifetime. Fairy tales had never previously been written down, but were declaimed to an audience by “droll tellers”, men who would spend one night here, two nights there, as they wandered from farm to farm, being fed and making money as the hat was passed around. This was all in exchange for entertaining the people with their traditional accounts of what mischief the fairies had got up to. They still exist nowadays to some extent:
In those days, the agricultural population would often live in groups either in, or around, a large farm, providing the farmer with his workforce and the droll teller with his audience. Presumably, the droll teller might well change the details of his tale slightly to fit the lives of the people in the particular farm where he was telling his tale. Many tales mention specific people and specific places, and the tale might be changed to take account of this. Even today, a droll teller can attract a large crowd:
The three books by William Bottrell which I have are : “Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall-First Series (1870)”
“Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall-Second Series (1873)”
“Stories and Folk-Lore of West Cornwall-Third Series (1880)”
And here’s the cover:
Personally, I would say that the “droll tales” were already centuries old when Bottrell collected them. Some of them apparently include particular individuals from the 1600s and I would not be surprised if the tales had their origins as far back as the years before William the Conqueror. A few certainly mention the red hair of the vikings:
Fairies back then were beings who would interfere frequently in the lives of ordinary people. They had such powers that they could do whatever they wished. Physically, they were the size of humans and people were frequently deceived by strangers that they did not realise were fairies. More about such evil-doing next time…….
14 responses to “The Fairies of Cornwall (3)”
That beats some modern entertainment
Yes, I think that it must have been quite an occasion when the droll teller came to call. And I’m sure he would have included plenty of references to the foibles of the people who lived there, especially the bosses.
I agree with Derrick. With that many stories, we could be entertained for quite a while with his collections!
And by the time the droll teller has finished story # 243, he can start again with the first one, which everybody has by now forgotten!
I’d love to get my hands on your trilogy set. Those are insights to a culture that I find fascinating. An anthropologist or cultural historian would have a lot of fun. I am shocked no one has thought to bring the fairies to life in a Netflix series of some sort. 😉
A line of my ancestors come from Cornwall and South East Ireland.
There used to be Bronze Age warriors in Cornwall, some people believe from South East Ireland, around 400 BC. They came to “guard” the extremely valuable tin and copper which was mined in the hills near Penzance. They built Chun Castle which is described here:
In the 19th century, lots of Cornishmen left their homes for Canada and the USA, where they used their mining skills for coal in states such as Pennsylvania and for gold and silver in the Wild West. You can google “Cornish Diaspora”, but a page to get you started is
Abebooks have quite a few individual volumes for sale at around $35 each, including some beautiful “Print on demand” from India which are bound in leather. I suppose the closest that we have come to these malevolent old fairies is the Shakespeare play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Personally, I am very taken by the very strong similarities between the Cornwall fairies, and the current cases reported in books by David Paulides and others, where people are disappearing from your national parks in worryingly large numbers. Have a look at:
Personally, I think that the modern claims about alien abductions are just the same beings as in medieval Cornwall with its fairies. You should see what I mean in a future post!
Interesting article, John. I can’t say what the stories of missing people from US National Parks, but I do know that there are people who choose to live off the grid and be survivalists. Not that that has anything to do with fairies. Anyway, I look forward to your next post.
Have you been drinking John?
No, I spilt most of it.
You have really shone a light on the topic of fairies John. I wonder though, where does the name ‘fairies’ come from? It’s interesting that the idea of fairies has changed from what were quite nasty, evil human figures to dainty little things with wings. Quite a transformation!
According to the Oxford Dictionary, it comes from Old French “faerie”, which itself comes from “fae”, ‘a fairy’, which itself comes from the Latin “fata” ‘the Fates’. So now you know !
It is interesting though how the Romans considered them powerful enough to decide our individual Fates.
In my next blog post on the nastier fairies, we will see how they take Mr Uter and give him a good pasting!
What a wonderful post John. If I make a quote from William, more things in heaven and earth than this world dreams of Horatio
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of human sized fairies in Australia but there may be some tucked away in the Aborigine legends. There was an enormous number of Cornish people who migrated to Australia during the “Cornish Diaspora”:
It would be interesting to see if they started to see fairies in their new country, because they certainly had a very strong belief in them.