By Louis Stott
Reproduced from The Voice with kind permission
Local historian and literary expert Louis Stott provides some fascinating insights to the world of fairies in the National Park.
‘Sith’ and ‘Sithean’ are found in place-names like Glenshee ‘fairy glen’ or ‘glen of the fairy hills’, and Schiehallion ‘fairy hill of the Caledonians, both in Perthshire. On The Bottle Imp website Alison Grant a Senior Editor at Scottish Language Dictionaries continues:
Related to sìth is the term sìthean or sìdhean (pronounced shee-an) which also refers to a fairy hill. The sìthein are often small conical hills, and in Celtic mythology they were reputed to have hollow interiors, with the fairies dwelling inside. Belief in the ‘wee folk’ continued into relatively modern times, with the Reverend Robert Kirk, a minister and Gaelic scholar from Aberfoyle writing in 1691 a book entitled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies in which he described these creatures and their subterranean habitat in a remarkably candid manner.
The website goes on to point out that there are many hills named simply Sìthean ‘fairy hill’ or An Sìdhean ‘the fairy hill’ throughout Scotland. Among many others she mentions Sìdhean Sluaigh ‘fairy hill of the host’ in Argyll, Sìthean a’ Chata ‘fairy hill of the battle’ in Balquidder, Beinn an t-Sìthean (Ben Shian) in Strathyre in Perthshire
It can be noted that at Luss and Balloch Park on Loch Lomondside, and at Balfron and Aberfoyle further east are “fairy villages” of tiny houses carved in the trees and much lore about diminutive creatures. They are, of course, for the entertainment of children. It should be recollected that the fairies who were believed in locally, and described by Robert Kirk, were much more like an alternative society to our own. Scott supplied the following note to Lady of the Lake: “Fairies, if not positively malevolent, are capricious, and easily offended. They are, like other proprietors of the forest, peculiarly jealous of their rights of vert and venison.”
Perhaps the best-known fairy site in the National Park is Puck’s Glen, the most popular short walk near Dunoon, a characterful gorge enclosed by rocky walls, draped with mosses. In 1870 the Greenock sugar refiner, philanthropist and art collector James Duncan (1834–1905) bought the Benmore estate, and added the adjacent Kilmun and Bernice Estates to it. It became Benmore Botanic Garden, managed by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Duncan arranged extensive plantings, including more than six million trees around the estate, and added paths leading up the Eas Mòr gorge so that his visitors could enjoy the magical atmosphere of the glen, which reminded him of Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Henry Younger the Edinburgh brewer bought the estate in 1889, and with his son, Harry George Younger, made further improvements to the woods and the gardens.
Benmore House, for long Scotland’s best-known botanic garden, was celebrated for “Puck’s Glen with its amber stream cutting a channel through moss-draped schistose rock and tumbling from one silver rock-chalice to another.” The Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society described Puck’s Glen as “a striking example of how man, working hand in hand with nature, has made what was once a bare hillside ravine into one of the most lovely walks imaginable”
On the west side of Loch Eck (on the former Bernice Estate) is Coire an t-Sith“, Gaelic for “fairy corrie”, the name of a considerable amphitheatre, overlooked by Beinn Mhor. The Allt Coire an t-Sith empties into Loch Eck at Coirantee, showing the way in which, such names may be transliterated into English.
Fairy Knowe, a volcanic plug between Strachur and Newton, just outside the National Park, is a landmark from many parts of Upper Loch Fyne. The hill’s name is Sith an t-Sluain (se above). The summit is easily reached from the south side. Extensive views from the top include the peaks of Arran, the Puck’s Glen, Paps of Jura, Cruachan, Beinn Bhuidhe, Inveraray and Loch Fyne. Ben Lomond has two fairy sites: Creag a’ Bhocain [NN 3498 0441] which signifies the Craig of the hobgoblin or sprite, is applied to a feature forming part of the brow of the eastern height of the hill. The second site is a fairy hill, An Sithean, on the principal path from Rowardennan to the summit of Band en Lomond which commands a stunning view towards the south-west.
On the opposite side of Loch Lomond north of Inverbeg is Lochan Uaine, the green lochan; often called the Fairy Loch, derived from stories told to children that the fairies had used this lochan to dye wool. The West Highland Way follows Bogle Glen the original route of the military road west of Crianlarich.
At the foot of Loch Lubnaig, the National Park has named a site on its scenic route Sloc Nan Sitheanach, the Faerie Hollow. This is a quiet stopping place o a very busy road, the A84. The fairies are the mystical creatures associated with places connected with “peace” and “tranquility”. The Architectural Designer is Ruairidh C. Moir.
The site filters out the road noise and opens onto the loch. The poetry at your feet, ‘Now Winters’ Wind Sweeps’ is by local poet Alexander Campbell, born at Tombea. It depicts man’s place in natural cycles, and encourages the visitor to reflect on their fleeting presence in the landscape.
Now Winter’s Wind SweepsAlexander Campbell (1764-1824)
Now winter’s wind sweeps o’er the mountains
Deeply clad in drifting snow
Soundly sleep the frozen fountains
Ice-bound streams forget to flow
The piercing blast howls loud and long
The leafless forest oaks among.
Beinn an t-Sidhean (often anglicised to Ben Shian) is a steep-sided hill that shelters Strathyre from westerly winds.