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About Reverend Robert Kirk
The Rev. Robert Kirk, the author of The Secret Commonwealth, was a student of theology at St. Andrews: his Master's degree, however, he took at Edinburgh. He was (and this is notable) the youngest and seventh son of Mr. James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, the place familiar to all readers of Rob Roy.
The fairies of Doon Hill
Doon Hill and the Old Kirk in Aberfoyle, will forever be associated with the Reverend Robert Kirk, a priest who is more notorious for his belief in fairies than his Christian preachings. by Philip Coppens
Robert Kirk wrote the Secret Commonwealth in 1691. The book is an essay on the nature and social structure of supernatural beings or fairies. Kirk’s work was not encyclopaedic; he wrote from personal experience. As Robert was a seventh son, he was said to have been gifted with second sight. Kirk was a native of Aberfoyle, born in the manse in 1644, the seventh son of Reverend James Kirk. He first served as Episcopal minister to the parish of Balquihidder (from 1664 to 1685), before returning to Aberfoyle, to take up the position of his father upon his death. It was a remarkable career for Robert, as his parents were extremely poor. Nevertheless, Robert was able to go to school, then to the High School Dundee, to continue his education in Edinburgh, graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1661. He was then granted a bursary by the Presbytery of Dunblane, which he used to study theology at St Andrews University. He graduated in 1664 as a Doctor of Divinity, at the age of 20.
Kirk married twice. First to Isobel, daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster, in 1670. They had two children, before Isobel died in 1680. He later married with a daughter of Campbell of Fordy. They had one son, who later became the minister of Dornoch. Kirk is also known as the first man who translated the Bible into Gaelic. Though Kirk wrote “The Secret Common-wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies” in 1691, the book itself was not published until 1815. The detailed their customs, including the food they ate. The locals believed that the book was a great crime, as the fairies had thus been spoiled of their secrets; for sure, the fairies would exact their revenge.
The tomb of Robert Kirk
Scotland in the 17th century had been a country in religious turmoil. A strict interpretation of the Christian faith had made its force felt in every corner of the nation, but Kirk is a living reminder that the “old ways” were not easily destroyed. Kirk himself stated that the belief in faeries was not incompatible with Christianity.
The church where Kirk was the minister of sits just off the river Forth, which makes it way through Aberfoyle. The “Old Church” has since become too small to accommodate the faithful. Even its now roofless inside has now become part of the cemetery. Outside the old entrance to the church are two large mortuary weights, used in olden days to stop thieves from making off with freshly interred bodies to sell to medical science. On the opposite side of the church sits the memorial to Robert Kirk. The memorial dates from 1793, just over a century after his death – and just over two centuries from the present time.
Kirk’s tomb looks towards Doon Hill, the site where he died. He frequently walked from the church to the hill, where he encountered the fairies. On May 14, 1692, he set of for his daily stroll on the hill, but collapsed and died on the hill, his body being discovered later. He was most likely the victim of a heart attack. However, in tradition he did not die, but entered into the fairy realm. Related legends speak of his death, but that afterwards the fairies transported his soul to their realm. Some claim that his coffin contains only stones. Yet another tradition states that his spirit was imprisoned in a pine on Doon Hill. The so-called Minister’s Pine crowns the top of the hill. It continues to be the sign of worship, with several people living behind cards or ribbons, carrying their wishes, hoping that the fairies will make them come true.
Doon Hill, with in the centre, the Minister's Pine
The Reverend Patrick Graham, one of Kirk's successors in the early 19th century spoke of other legends connected with our fairy reverend. Apparently, Kirk appeared to one of his family after his funeral and told him to go to his cousin, Graham of Duchray, and tell him that he was not dead. He had actually fallen in a swoon on the hill and had been carried away to fairyland. His release could be obtained at the baptism of his posthumous child. He predicted that he would appear in the room at the baptism, and that Duchray should throw a knife over his apparition to release him from captivity. At the appointed time, Robert Kirk appeared, but his cousin failed to throw the knife, either in terror or surprise, and Kirk left through another door. This unfortunate event means that Kirk has since apparently remained trapped in the fairy realm, though some have stated that he has become a mediator between the two worlds. It is in this understanding that we find his pine on the top of Doon Hill being the centre for wish granting. It is also said that if you run around the great pine tree at the summit seven times, then the Fairies will appear.
Doon Hill is also known as Fairy Knowe, or Dun Sithean. The fairies are locally known as the “Sithe”, a name that in recent years has been used by Hollywood in the Star Wars films. Its otherworldly aspects continue to be expressed by the use of a mushroom as the symbol of the “Fairy Walk”. The hill has a conical shape, within an otherwise relatively flat landscape. Conical hills have always been set aside for special worship; its fairy quality was no doubt added to because it is covered with trees. From an archaeological perspective, there is some evidence that the hill once held an Iron Age fort, although no excavations were ever done. Perhaps it were these ancient remains that made it renowned. However, it is clear that for Kirk, the fascination went deeper. He apparently came to the hill night after night, lying down, with his ears to the ground – listening to what seems to have been the noises that emanated from the fairy realm. It is said that he normally only left when his wife came to get him – anxious as she was over her husband’s nightly escapades.
Kirk had come back to Aberfoyle in 1685 and in 1690, he started his manuscript. He stated that he had communicated with the fairies of Doon Hill, which he called “The People of Peace”. He stated that the fairies had “apparel and speech like that of the people and country under which they live, so are they seen to wear plaids and various garments in the Highlands of Scotland. They speak little, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough… their bodies are so pliable by the subtlety of the spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear and disappear at pleasure”.
The top of Doon Hill, where people continue to leave messages to the faeries
He also spoke of other people with second sight and their encounter with the fairies. One person, in Balquhidder, had only escaped when he had cut one of the fairies with an iron knife. According to Kirk, nothing scared the faeries more than iron. Kirk’s manuscript was handed to his eldest son, but was lost, until 1815, when it was rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott, who also visited Aberfoyle. Several editions have since appeared of the book, whereas the original remains in the library of Edinburgh University. In 1908, W.Y. Evans Wentz, a renowned American chronicler of Celtic fairy lore, visited Aberfoyle and wrote about Kirk. He stated that Doon Hill was full of caverns, and it was inside these that the faeries lived. One of Scott’s greatest fans was the French author Jules Verne. He visited Scotland and Aberfoyle. In 1877, he wrote Black Diamonds, in which talks about the re-opening of a (fictional) coalmine in Aberfoyle. When a wall is blasted through, a vast cavern is revealed. This stretches for miles in many directions and holds an underground town, beside a subterranean loch. When W.Y. Evans-Wentz visited Aberfoyle, he observed that the belief in the fairies had disappeared. One of his sources stated that 300 years, in Kirk’s days, the beliefs in the faeries was rock solid, and that it was native to the region – it was a survival from the olden days, and had nothing to do with the stories of angels of Christianity. If the hill is riddled with caves, then their access is today invisible. Perhaps they never existed – or perhaps they were only visible to people with second sight.
In Kirk's time, fairies were not seen as tiny, gauzy-winged creatures of children's storybooks. Far from it -- fairies were thought of as strange, powerful creatures, a paraphysical race of beings living among mankind. It was common for some of the clergy to denounce fairy folk as demons, or at least servants of Satan. Kirk wasn't so sure. He decided that they were a separate race "betwixt Man and Angel." Lacking scientific language to describe fairy attributes, Kirk resorted to poetic descriptions. Fairies were made on "congealed Air" or "condensed cloud." This ethereal composition was crucial to their ability to vanish at will, fly, or penetrate any enclosed space, no matter how tiny. Being so nebulous, fairies imbibed only the most refined of "spirituous liquors" (Scotland being a good location for such), and Kirk noted that although they had prodigious appetites, fairies never grew fat because they only used the quintessence of food and drink. Humans sometimes stumbled upon fairy banquets hidden away in the hills, but mortals should never partake of fairy food; one taste, and the luckless human was forever a captive of the Subterranean race. An especially odd detail Kirk gives is that the fairies had a special class of servant at their revels, whom he describes as "Pleasant Children" or enchanted puppets, which sounds like the fairies were tended by mechanical dolls...
'He died (if he did die, which is disputed) in 1692, aged about fifty-one; his tomb was inscribed–'
*ROBERTUS KIRK, A.M.
*Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen.
The tomb, in Scott’s time, was to be seen in the cast end of the churchyard of Aberfoyle; but the ashes of Mr. Kirk are not there. His successor, the Rev. Dr. Grahame, in his Sketches of Picturesque Scenery, informs us that, as Mr. Kirk was walking on a dun-shi, or fairy-hill, in his neighbourhood, he sunk down in a swoon, which was taken for death. ” After the ceremony of a seeming funeral,” writes Scott (op. cit., p. 105), “the form of the Rev. Robert Kirk appeared to a relation, and commanded him to go to Grahame of Duchray. ‘Say to Duchray, who is my cousin as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this is neglected, I am lost for ever.’” True to his tryst, Mr. Kirk did appear at the christening and “was visibly seen;” but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw his dirk over the head of the appearance, and to society Mr. Kirk has not yet been restored. This is extremely to be regretted, as he could now add matter of much importance to his treatise. Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person.
Aberfoyle, Perthshire, March 2001
It is a track from the manse to the hill. It is spring, and the trees are beginning to put out new young leaves. Subtle colour permeates the landscape; the pale purple of growing tips, the russet of lingering winter, the film of green beginning to thicken, the darkness of the evergreens..It is a brilliant sunny day, bluely, sharply cold, after massive snowfalls which almost stopped us coming north at all. The path up the hill is through quiet oak woodland, over mossy rocks, through carpets of dead leaves, over little runnels of water where late snow has melted, through dark patches of mud. It doesn't look like much of a hill from a distance, nothing like the high frowning Trossachs all around, gaunt in their velvet-brown winter austerity, and Ben Lomond in the distance, capped by snow. This hill is round, soft, gentle. But the walk is a bit steeper than it had seemed from the bottom; and there is an ambiguous atmosphere in this quiet, beautiful, light-filled place which makes me remember the expression on the face of the woman down in the village who had shown us where to go. 'You'll see what you'll see when you get there,' she'd said, with a little smile that could be interpreted in any number of ways.
We get to the top, to a clearing on the summit. In the middle of the clearing, there is a tall, lone Scots pine. The Minister's Pine, it is called, around here. And all around it are leafless oak trees, of varying sizes. And on the oaks, long, fluttering ribbons: some bright, some faded and bedraggled. On the ribbons, words. 'To the fairies of the place: a wish'. 'I ask for the help of the fairies in..' 'Fairies, will you give me..' There are one or two ribbons tied to the pine, but the words are too faded to read, as are indeed many of the ones tied on the oaks. You can't tie much to the pine; its branches are mostly too far off the ground, its long slender shape not like the open-armed embrace of the oaks.
It is not a place where you want to stay. After the first two or three reading-aloud of wishes, you somehow don't want to look at any more. A hand placed on the pine's scaley bark is quickly withdrawn; the leafless oaks with their cargo of strange blossom look stranger and stranger. The evergreen,. alone of its kind amongst the circling oaks, takes on more and more of of a mute appeal. Yet that is surely just because you know the story. Because you know what that pine is supposed to mean, so that it takes on more and more the aspect of an enchanted prisoner standing helpless and speechless, as in a dream, within the ambiguous circle of his captors. You'd thought you'd want to stay there, soak in atmosphere, think, imagine; but no. Not really. Nobody says a word as we walk down, back into the wood, and come out at the entrance to the path just as a forestry worker in a van draws up and after a brief nod at us, prepares to tie a plastic ribbon across the entrance: foot and mouth precautions, you see. Nobody will be able to get up there now for days, weeks, months maybe. We only just made it in time.
Down the track, past the manse, across the bridge, and there is a ruined church. There is a graveyard at its back, which faces the hill. We wander amongst the stones, noting the names: McGregor--for this is McGregor country; Macintyre; Mac Donald; MacLaren, MacFarlane, Menzies, Primrose, Swan, Keir..And Kirk. Robert Kirk. Here he is, commemorated in a slab of red sandstone, and these Latin words, written, according to local hisorians, in what appears to be 18th century script:
Hic Pultis Ill Evangeli Promulgator Accuratus et Linguae Hiberniae Lumen M.Robertus Kirk Aberfoile Pastor Obiit 14 Maii 1692 Aetat 48.
Here lies the accurate promulgator of the Gospels and luminary of the Hibernian tongue, Mr Robert Kirk, pastor of Aberfoyle, who died 14 May 1692, aged 48.
There are also three designs on the stone: an etched thistle, to represent his proud Highlands background; a shepherd's crook, to represent his calling; and a dagger, to represent--well, we shall see. No mention on this slab of stone of the Minister's Pine, or the other life of Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle. No mention of the strange story surrounding his death. No mention of the strange book he wrote a year before his death, which ensured his immortality in more ways than one. Nothing ambiguous about this stone, pinning Kirk firmly to the earth, to time, to death, to sensible pursuits. Only in recent times has a small plaque been erected on the wall of the graveyard, noting discreetly that the gravestone of Robert Kirk, the 'Fairy Minister', was to be found within. The modern tourist authority knows that it is not Kirk's prowess in evangelism or translating the Bible into Gaelic that attracts modern pilgrims from far away. But it doesn't want to be too closely connected with the strangeness of the other thing, the ambiguous, elusive nature of just what it was Kirk did, and how he came to be both beneath that firm slab of stone, and in the lone pine on the hill.
Everything about Kirk in Aberfoyle is like that--glancing, elusive, quickly passed over, ambiguous. To get information on him seems like trying to hold quicksilver in your hand. There is no biography of him, though there is any amount on characters like Rob Roy MacGregor, a contemporary of, and related to Kirk himself. There is little information in any of the tourist literature; nobody seems to have thought him worthy of extended examination. He merits only a tiny paragraph in the Scottish Dictionary of National Biography, though the local Aberfoyle paper, Strathard News, featured an article on him, written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death in 1992. Perhaps it has to do with the lingering distaste of the traditional supernatural in Presbyterian Scotland, which has never seemed to come to grips with the complexity of belief as has, say, Catholic Ireland. Or perhaps it is something even stranger, undercurrents that cannot be named, cannot be pinned down, despite the best efforts of sensible epitaph-writers. For in Kirk's life, death and legend, lies an extraordinary story, a story not of irreconciliable dualisms, but of things which mesh together in strange and illuminating ways.
The exact date of Robert Kirk's birth is not known--some sources say he was born in 1641, others in 1644. He was a native Gaelic speaker, the seventh son of the Reverend James Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle. In traditional Highlands belief, being a seventh son confers upon one the power of second sight--perhaps one of the reasons why Robert Kirk chose later to delve into beliefs surrounding second sight and the contact that second-sighters, or seers, have with the fairy world. Aberfoyle, of course, is at what local tourist literature calls 'the gateway to the Highlands'--it in fact represents the transition point between the Lowlands and Highlands, and shares bits of both cultures.
Robert was brought up at Aberfoyle, and it is reasonable to assume that he saw the burning of woods and houses around the area by the forces of General Monk, one of Cromwell's army commanders in 1654. Aberfoyle was a royalist stronghold, both then and later, and the burnings were both warning and reprisal. In 1661, a year after the Restoration of the monarchy, Robert graduated with an MA from Edinburgh University, after obtaining a bursary for his studies from the Presbytery in Dunblane. He then went on to further studies at St Andrews. After his ordination, he was inducted to the parish of Balquidder, not far from Aberfoyle, in November 1664. This was also Rob Roy's country--Kirk was related by marriage to the McGregors, as he was to the Grahams by birth. It is interesting to speculate on whether the two men knew each other--Rob Roy was about 10 years younger than Kirk--and how Kirk, educated in Lowlands English-language culture, but deeply steeped in Gaelic language, folklore and history, managed to reconcile all these different aspects of himself, much as Mc Gregor did, in many ways. A bicultural background can be a huge advantage, as well as a drawback; and the man of agile mind who is able to jump between them, using one to inform the other, can be in a fortunate position. But also a difficult one.
Whilst in Balquidder, Kirk married Isobel Campbell in 1678, and the couple had one son, Colin. However, Isobel died two years later, on Christmas Day. Her gravestone, with an epitaph cut on it by her husband himself, is still to be seen in Balquidde. Later, Robert remarried, to his first wife's cousin Margaret Campbell(note that because of the fact the very name of MacGregor had been banned by James I, after some turbulent clan members caused an enormous amount of strife, many MacGregors, including Rob Roy himself at one stage, went by the name of Campbell, a name to which they also had kin-claim). Robert and Margaret Kirk had one son, also named Robert.
Whilst at Balquidder, Kirk began work on translations of the Bible, Psalms and the Catechism in Gaelic, and wrote up a helpful Gaelic vocabulary. He also translated the Psalter into Gaelic metrical versions--and this was published in 1684, and was the first ever complete translation for Gaelic speakers. His work was reckoned to be both important and elegant, displaying a great deal of literary talent as well as skill in translation. However, the Presbyterian Synod in Argyll was not altogether comfortable with the tone of Kirk's translation, considering it a little too open-minded, almost Episcopalian. Not for ten years was a version of his work published under the approval of Argyll.
Meanwhile, Robert was not worrying himself overmuch about whether Argyll approved or not. He was taking part in a great deal of theological and metaphysical debate, travelling to Lowland Scotland and England on occasion to take part in discussions. A long way from being the stereotypical Presbyterian bigot, he was most interested in combatting what he saw as the dangers arising not from resurgent Catholicism, but fashionable scepticism and materialism--an aim he specifically mentioned when writing his next book. In 1685, he was appointed to his birthplace, and his father's old parish of Aberfoyle, and it is perhaps this return to his origins and his childhood which stimulated him into starting work on his next project, his most famous and infamous book, and the reason for which he has not been forgotten altogether. We do not know exactly when Robert started this book, which was published in 1691 under the ponderous title of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterrenean and(for the most part)Invisible People Heretofoir going under the name of Faunes and Fairies, and the lyke, as described by those who have the second sight. Naturally, in referring to it from now on, I will shorten this simply to The Secret Commonwealth.
The Secret Commonwealth is a fascinating book. Written in a matter-of-fact and occasionally tugid style, it recounts the habits, appearance and attitudes of the supernatural beings called, variously, elves, fauns or fairies--or rather, as his second-sighted parishioners were more likely to call them, the Sith. The details of Sith lives are very specific, and strangely compelling and suggestive, mysterious whilst being of an odd sort of realism. These beings, he points out, are very close to humans, living close to human dwellings, often underground, wear clothes of the same style and colours as their human counterparts in the region where they lived, so that in the Highlands, they wore 'plaids and variegated garments'. However, though their appearance was similar to that of humans, their size varied, with some being of human size and others much smaller. 'They speak but little, and that by way of whistling, clear not rough,' he went on, and 'their bodies be so plyable through the Subtility of the spirits that do Agitate them, that they can make them Appear and Disappear at leisure.' They took the nourishment out of food, sucking the inside of things, leaving the husk behind; they had servants who were 'Children, like Inchanted puppets'; they laughed little, and that more like the rictus of a skull than real amusement; they had 'pleasant Toyish books' in their libraries, and tended to be rather rather restless, moving about especially on Quarter Days, when second-sighters would see great crowds of them on the roads. (Kirk points out ruefully that these days were also the times of the year when his church was the most full, as parishioners flocked to take refuge in the sacred building) He also said that their world was the source of the gift of second sight, and that second-sighters could always see them, whereas 'normal' people could not. The second-sighters, he wrote, said that each human being, however, had a fairy double, or co-walker, a 'doubleman', and that this doubleman walked with a person all their lives, invisible to everyone except the second-sighters, until their human double, or host, died, when the Doubleman would disappear. If a person's fairy double was seen separate from his or her human host, when the human was still alive, it meant that person would die very soon. Kirk recounts many cases when this happened. (The notion of the Doubleman was also used to great uncanny and powerful effect in Christopher Koch's extraordinary 1985 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The Doubleman, which is partly based on some of Kirk's findings.)
One of the interesting things that Kirk mentions is that in the Highlands, it was mainly men who were supposed to have the gift of second sight, and women only rarely--therefore it was mostly men, and not women, who were in contact with the fairy world. From this world, for the second-sighter, would come the gift of healing, of prophecy, of poetry. But the second-sighter was not, as it were, in control--it was very difficult to force the fairy world into anything, and people were very wary of talking about it at all. In fact, here as elsewhere in the world(and fairy belief is found all over the world), there were euphemisms for the fairies--they were the People of Peace, the Good Neighbours, the Friends, the Little People, and so on. And he stresses that many of the second-sighters are terrified by their gift; that when they see the fairy folk gathering on the roads, their hair stands up on their heads; and that they suffer through seeing things they'd rather not see.
There are too many stories gathered together in Kirk's book to recount here, and that is not the purpose of my paper, anyhow. The Secret Commonwealth is fascinating not just as one of the earliest 'scientific' sources of Highlands folklore, not just fascinating on account of its depiction of the strange alien lives of strange alien beings, but also because of how Kirk's stated aims and his perhaps unspoken underlying beliefs contrasted and meshed, and what bearing the book has on the development of the later legend of the Fairy Minister. As well, to look briefly at some of the social and historical and cultural elements surrounding the book, might be useful.
This was a transitional age: between Stuart and Hanoverian; tradition and modernity; magic and science. It was to become slowly an age in which the uneasy peace between England and Scotland brought about by James VI of Scotland and I of England's accession to the English throne had brought, was suspended. It was to signal the beginning of the 18th century calvary of the Highlands, the destruction of the clan system, and of many traditional aspects of life. Kirk's book is a priceless cultural, human and social document, written by a man who wrote both as insider and outsider, a bicultural man fluent in both worlds, a true 'walker between worlds'. It is believed that Kirk collected many of the stories in his book through talking to his parishioners, but it is also possible that at least some of them could have come from his own experience, and his own thoughts on the matter. The fairy hill at Aberfoyle, the same one I described at the beginning of this paper, was one of his favourite walking spots. He was often to be seen walking from the manse to the hill--and it is there that he was found stone dead on a sunny May morning in 1692. It is not inconceivable that in writing his book, ostensibly as a quasi-scientific endeavour to convince English readers of his class and calling as to the spiritual validity of Highlands, or 'Erse' as he called it, beliefs, he was in fact describing his own spiritual and imaginative experiences as much as those of his second-sighted friends. English author and academic Dr Diane Purkiss, whose new book, Troublesome Things(Allen Lane 2000), is a most interesting and complex study of fairies and fairy stories, notes, in a passage on Kirk and his work, that 'belief in fairies actually warmed and grew as people began to be afraid that scepticism was a bottomless black vortex into which Christianity itself might be drawn'(page 185). Kirk was certainly worried about this--he states specifically in his preface that he wants to combat scepticism and materialism. But it is not his only motive. After all, he was a seventh son, of a minister, what's more, a man bearing the name of 'Kirk', possibly a family that had long been associated with spiritual and metaphysical matters. Kirk, however, was no fool. He knew that to write directly about fairies himself, in an age which was very much a transitional one, but which prided itself on its new scientific and 'objective' aspects, would be tantamount to intellectual, not to speak of theological suicide. Keeping a wary eye on fundamentalist misunderstanding was also a concern. In the event, the Presbyterians said nothing about this book--perhaps they were not particularly aware of it--but in presenting his material as a kind of anthropological study avant l'heure, Kirk ran a great deal less risk. This kind of book was having a certain success in literary and intellectual circles in England and Scotland at the time, particularly in England, where it was becoming quite fashionable to collect folklore. Magic and science were still closely linked. Many members of the Royal Society, to which people such as Isaac Newton belonged, for instance, were great collectors of, and in some cases(including Newton's)firm believers in, and students of, magic. The antiquarian and wonderfully garrulous and zestful writer John Aubrey, a contemporary of Kirk, had written at some length on English fairy beliefs, recounting many wonderful stories, and had also corresponded with a Scotsman--not Kirk--who had sent him a great deal of information on second sight. The Scottish connection was important, because a great many English people of Aubrey's day and class considered that, as a 'savage' society more in tune with 'primitive' beliefs, the Scots, particularly the Highlanders, presented a less 'untainted' version of traditional supernatural beliefs of all kinds. (In fact, this was not really the case; fairy beliefs in the Highlands as elsewhere evolved and changed over time, and there were some areas of England every bit as traditional in their descriptions of fairies as the Highlands: but they were different, often not such fierce fairies as in the Highlands, and therefore thought to be 'tamer' or less 'pure' as folklore). John Bovet, who wrote Pandemonium, or the Devil's Cloyster, in 1684, also recounted some tales of Scottish fairies, with descriptions of their lives and homes, which were remarkably similar to the descriptions given by Kirk. He also, incidentally, describes an English story of a fairy market, invisible to all but a few, yet tangible entirely, which is also very close to the visions experienced by the Aberfoyle second-sighters: this is not an instance of Kirk copying from a source, however, but of his accounts tallying closely with those of other writers, not only in Britain but in other places(the invisible parallel world is a common feature of fairy lore in many cultures all over the world).
This whole area of folklore and belief, its collection and examination by proto-scientists, was of interest to more than just enthusiastic antiquarians. It was also studied in more practical circles--Samuel Pepys being one King's employee who thought that the phenomenon of second-sight might have military applications. Employed as he was by the Navy for so many years, he thought it might be useful if the second-sighters could be employed to 'see' at a distance how many enemy ships were coming, or what the outcome of a battle was likely to be. Rather unfortunately, there is no record of whether this was indeed tried--perhaps it was and failed, and everyone decided to keep quiet about it--sceptical critics were an occupational hazard then as later, when psychics were employed by both Pentagon and Kremlin along the lines of 'Why not? It can't hurt, anyway!'
Kirk could have told Pepys and others like him, though, that the fairy gift cannot be used in such ways. Unpredictable as the Muse, capricious as talent, it cannot be pressed into service. But the fact that some people possess it was enough for their neighbours to be wary in their dealings with them; to make sure to keep on their right side, to be 'looked after' in the same way as healers and priests were looked after. The fairy gifts were not supposed to be used for ill, and there was a strong belief that if they were, the harm would rebound upon the unwise wielder of power; but they were seen as dangerous in the same way that nature can be dangerous. And that is another thing. I've been writing about 'supernatural' but the kinds of talents referred to by Kirk, though uncanny, were not seen as anything but natural. They were natural because Nature, God's created world, encompassed the fairy world. And so of course Kirk and his parishioners were matter-of-fact about it all. They did not need to explain, or even to 'believe', for that word implies the presence of doubts somewhere in the background. Such things were true, as true as the oaks on the fairy hill.
It is time here to make a few general remarks about fairies and the fairy world. Fairy belief is one of the most elusive aspects of traditional cultures all over the world. In each place, this parallel Otherworld is seen slightly differently, and called by different names, but it still shares some remarkable similarities worldwide: a taboo on speech whilst in the fairy world, for instance; or the fairies' love of dancing and feasting; or the odd passage of time in the fairy world. As the Irish scholar and writer Dr Angela Bourke points out in her extraordinary evocation of a 19th century 'changeling' case in Ireland(which has many related features to the case of Robert Kirk), The Burning of Bridget Cleary, (Pimlico 1999), 'Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life.'(page 28) Stories about them are highly complex, mysterious yet often very realistic; fairies' love of secrets, of promises, of bindings in word and deed is often evoked; their transitional state between good and evil, their unpredictability, their fateful appearances, are all best understood through story, through dream, through imagination. They cannot be pinned down, analysed, entirely. Other aspects of folk culture, such as witchcraft and its portrayal, are perhaps more suspectible to being 'explained away', rationalised, 'understood'. In the post-medieval past, witchcraft, of course, was demonised as an evil thing. These days, it tends to be glorified as a wonderful thing. The tendency prior to the Renaissance was to see it as a necessary, if frightening thing. But witches were human, and were never seen as less than or more than human--they had merely, so the old cant had it, sold their souls to the Devil--or devoted them to the Goddess, as the modern cant has it. In medieval times, it was accepted that a person who practised so-called witchcraft could in fact also be a churchgoer, someone who continued old traditions side by side with rural Christianity; after the Middle Ages, she--usually she, though there were male witches as well--was seen as actively promoting some kind of evil institutionalised anti-religion, a delusion which has resulted in modern 'reclaiming' of supposed witches' history. But fairy belief could not be shoehorned by Renaissance and Enlightenment rationalists and organisers into such useful dualisms. It remained defiantly ambiguous, ungraspable, quicksilver, the very mirror of the nature of the supernatural beings it represented. Though in Presbyterian Scotland there was some attempt to link fairy beliefs to witchcraft, these received short shrift in general in other religious organisations. The Devil was a serious matter, to be believed in by right-minded folks. Fairies--well, who could really believe in them? And yet, strangely, who couldn't? Anyone who has ever been in a quiet wood, anyone who has unexpectedly caught, out of the corner of their eye, a glimpse of a shadow dashing past, anyone who has felt some odd quality of glamour, of fateful knowledge, gathering around a person, knows that there are unspoken, almost unspeakable, undercurrents to the human soul that cannot be pinned down, like dreams that cannot be recalled on waking, but that were nevertheless there. The persecutors as much as the persecuted know this. You can ignore it, laugh at it and pretend it doesn't exist; you can try to analyse, saying fairies are the symbolic expression of nature, or the soul, or imagination, or whatever; you can fall completely under its sway; or you can simply accept it, and get on with your life. Which last is the version most people chose. And continue to choose.
It is not known what the general reaction to Kirk's book at the time was, but perhaps he did not have enough time to judge what its reception would be. A year after the book was published, he was dead, at the age of 48. He had gone for his customary early-morning walk on the fairy hill, and when he did not return, was looked for, and found dead on the hill. At once, the story sprang up in the village--and was recorded by his successor in the parish, a Reverend Graham--that he had been punished by the fairies for revealing their secrets. He, a favoured son, a second-sighter, had been a Judas. And fairies hate traitors above all things. The people, said Dr Graham, were convinced that he was not really dead; that a 'stock' or facsimile of his body had been left there on the hill, but that Robert Kirk had, body and soul, been imprisoned in the heart of that great old Scots pine on the hill: a fate recalling that of Merlin, who, as some medieval stories tell, was imprisoned body and soul in a tree in the forest of Broceliande. Another version was that a funeral had been held--but that the coffin was filled with stones. All was not lost for Kirk, however, the Reverend Graham went on to say. Margaret Kirk was expecting a child at the time Kirk 'disappeared', and the captive himself appeared to one of his relations, begging him to help him escape from fairyland. It could be done in this way: the cousin was to bring a dirk to the christening of the child at the manse, Kirk would appear, and then the cousin must throw the dirk at the vision, pinning it with cold iron--as everyone knew, a bane against fairies--and bringing the lost minister back to the earth, even in death. However, though the cousin dutifully brought along his dirk, when the vision of Kirk appeared, the cousin was so dumbstruck that he could not move--and the opportunity was lost.
His family seemed to have resigned themselves to his fate. Colin Kirk, Robert's oldest son, who became a lawyer in Edinburgh, reportedly said, in a rather chilling bit of fatalism, that 'Father has gone to his own kind.' But Kirk himself did not give up. He could be saved, he told people in dreams, if, when a child was christened at the manse, a dirk was stuck into the great chair that had belonged to him and was still held at the manse(at least till 1943).
But unfortunately no child seems to have been christened at the manse since 1692--so Kirk is still trapped in that tree on top of the hill. The gravestone in the churchyard, it is said, is not 17th but 18th century: and there is no body in the grave. And the dagger I referred to earlier--that is the only coded reference on that sensible marker to the fairy story: for it is said to be the dirk that was never properly used. The great English folklorist Katharine Briggs, writing briefly of the case in her 1978 book, The Vanishing People(BT Batsford), notes that local people in Aberfoyle, at least at the time she was collecting her information, in the 1940's, said that when you crossed the hump-backed bridge near the fairy hill, you would sometimes find a burden on your back: the soul of Robert Kirk begging to be freed. And there is the uncanny, powerful and ambiguous fact of the matter. Here is a man, named, born, lived, who lived a fairy story, really lived it: and in the popular imagination, he lives still. There are innumerable stories of fairy contact in countless cultures throughout the world, but Robert Kirk is not anonymous--fairy-taken, he, like Bridget Cleary in 19th century Ireland, real, documented, flesh-and-blood people, have stepped out of the human world, the world of the ordinary, sideways into a strange, parallel universe where nothing is quite as it seems.
Note: Since 1691, The Secret Commonwealth has been published several times: first in Edinburgh in 1815(this was the version used by Sir Walter Scott for his novel Rob Roy, which mentions Kirk and the Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle); in 1893 with an introduction and editing by Andrew Lang, in 1976 with an introduction and editing by Stewart Sanderson for the Folklore Society; in the early 1990's by Element Books, with an introduction and notes by R.J.Stewart, and there is also to be a new scholarly version, edited by Professor Michael Hunter. Manuscripts of The Secret Commonwealth are rare, but two are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and one in the Advocates' Library, also in Edinburgh.
Books cited: Bourke, Angela, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Pimlico, London 1999. Bovet, John, Pandemonium, or the Devil's Cloyster, London 1684. Briggs, KM, The Vanishing People, Batsford, London 1978. Koch, Christopher, The Doubleman, Chatto and Windus, London, 1985(new edition Minerva, Random House, London and sydney, 1996) Purkiss, Diane, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy stories, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 2000.
Also to note: Briggs, KM The Anatomy of Puck(opinions on fairies in 16th and 17th centuries), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1959.