Dances with Fairies and Witches

“Fairylore” in Gaelic tradition, like that of many other peoples, is a complex web of ideas that no singular theory can contain. Wish fulfillment, the rhetoric of social and psychological norms, and layers of older cosmology can all be found in these materials, making it a rich and sometimes perilous trove of material to analyze. Amongst other things, Gaelic fairylore often preserves the memory of social customs and norms after they have passed out of common currency.

As Henderson and Cowan have noted, fairylore often functions as a way to represent the transition of culture and tradition (pp. 24-30). Recent research about Icelandic tradition (Guðmundsdóttir 2005) suggests that oral narratives about the Hidden Folk preserve memories of dancing after its suppression by church authorities: the desire to dance was driven (metaphorically) “underground” and was sublimated through tales about elves; these tales preserve some of the features of Icelandic dance.

Could such an approach be fruitfully applied to Scottish (especially Highland) materials to tell us something about the historical forms and development of dance? The thought has occurred to me before, and John Gibson also mentions the notion in his latest book on dance (pp. 14-15). Unfortunately, however, his effort is limited to a single oblique reference from a remark in a Gaelic text from 1877 (fairly late) about the dancing of the fairies which Gibson does not parse correctly or compare to the copious earlier materials that exist about fairy dances.

I would translate the quote (using the Gaelic excerpts provided in Gibson’s book, but differently from him) as stating that fairies could be found:

at their fires in the dance, on the top of hillocks and knowes … the dance was just for the most part travelling steps with elegant movement in circles around the fire …

I think that Gibson is correct in seeing fairylore as a fading memory of passing customs – in this case dance – but he would like to believe that this refers to step-dance. This is his projection rather than good analysis. What is clear from this passage, and many other descriptions of fairy dances, is that they dance in a circle (in this case, around a single fire on a round hillock), not in figure-8s or multiples of figure-8s, such as produced by the dancing of reels.  The very idea of fairy-rings being traces of their dances (mentioned many times, for example, in Henderson and Cowan) attests to their dances being ring-caroles, a pre-Renaissance form of communal song performance (which I discussed in a previous blog post).

Another very interesting topic explored in the book by Henderson and Cowan (see especially Chapter Four) is that materials relating to early modern witches and witchcraft in Scotland often preserve aspects of contemporary fairylore – in other words, popular folk culture in Scotland (especially but not limited to the Highlands) was deeply entwined with fairylore but this was being re-interpreted by church authorities and political agendas as demonic.

While this is a complex topic that we need not dive into detail here, the fascination and social turmoil around witches left a record from which we can glean a certain amount about social practices and attitudes, including dance. And here again, all of the evidence indicates that the primary form of dance being practiced was the song-carol danced in a ring. This is clear from the textual descriptions of witch dances (including one of the first uses of the word “reel” in the 1591 North Berwick witch trial, as I’ve discussed in this article).

It’s also shown in illustrations such as the woodcut above, from the book The history of witches and wizards: giving a true account of all their tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England; with their confession and condemnation (London, 1720).


I am not claiming that oral narratives about the sìthichean [fairies] were completely, statically “frozen” and thus always depict them as dancing in a ring, as opposed to threesome or foursome reels. I am only suggesting that they represent a time lag, preserving fading memories. Old memories can eventually fade entirely and be replaced by new memories. I’ve argued that the eighteenth century is a major era of transition for dance practice in the Highlands, with the new social dance forms (reel, strathspey, and step dance) displacing the older choral-ring dances and ritual-dramatic dances. This did not happen overnight but in stages and over generations. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Gaelic oral narratives did describe the fairies as dancing threesome and foursome reels because by that time, in the memories of the living audiences and storytellers, that had become “old tradition.”


Ronald Black (ed). The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005).

John Gibson. Gaelic Cape Breton Step-Dancing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir. 2005. „‘Nú er glatt í hverjum hól’: On How Icelandic Legends Reflect the Prohibition of Dance“. The 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium on Folk legends, June 15th–18th 2005, Reykjavík.

Lizanne Henderson and Edward Cowan.  Scottish Fairy Belief (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001).



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Feàrnach says:

    Perhaps “parlous” should be introduced to your spellchecker: even if spells rather than dance were mentioned (!), they would be unlikely to be “perilous”. 😉
    A h-uile deagh dhùrachd dhuibh is do ur chuid-sa ann an 2018,
    Fearchar I. MacIllFhinnein.

    1. Tha na sìthichean cunnartach, agus tha breithneachadh air brìgh an t-seanchais caran cunnartach, nam bharailsa.

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