Book review by Eric Simpson: The Enchantment of the Trossachs
by Eric Simpson
Stott, Louis: The Enchantment of the Trossachs
Loch Ard Local History Group, 2018, pp.48, £4.99
ISBN 978 1 9999 0 2
In the kirkyard in the village of Aberfoyle, a flat sandstone tombstone pays tribute to the Reverend Robert Kirk who ministered to the people of the parish from 1685 to 1692. The inscription, which is in Latin, describes him as promulgator accuratus et linguae hiberniae lumen. In English this may be described as: accurate promoter and illuminator of the Irish language. It was common usage then, and for long after, witness Dr Johnson’s and James Boswell’s Tours, to describe Highland Gaelic as Irish or Erse. Robert Kirk was undoubtedly a scholar of note. He was the first to translate the Metrical Psalms into Gaelic and also played a major role in spreading the use of the Bible in Gaelic.
Kirk’s tombstone, however, makes no reference to the publication in 1691 for the work for which he is best known today. Its title, which is very long and wordy, is usually abbreviated to The Secret Commonwealth. This book was the result of a long and systematic investigation on Kirk’s part into local beliefs about fairies of various kinds and the second sight. Fairyland, according to Kirk, was populated by a secret and ‘Subterranean [and usually] Invisible People’. ‘The Low Country Scots’ that Kirk had interviewed had seemingly no doubt about the existence of fairies, who, incidentally, were not all tiny people. One might have thought that it was risky for a minister to be investigating, and writing about beliefs in fairies and the second sight at a time when witchcraft trials were all too prevalent, but Kirk does not seem to have unduly troubled about this. As an Episcopalian, Kirk was fortunate too in escaping the massive clear-out of Episcopalian clergy after the 1689 ‘Glorious’ Revolution.
Starting with Sir Walter Scott, Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth has intrigued and fascinated folklorists and scholars, and new editions of the book have been issued in recent years. Aberfoyle and district’s ‘fairyland’ has its own mini-tourist trail and the author provides help in this respect by describing and mapping the topography of the ‘Fairyland’of the Trossachs. Louis Stott, who has written other distinguished works on the history and heritage of the Trossachs and other parts of Scotland, has certainly done us a favour by illuminating the complex background to the story of Robert Kirk’s life and works. The Loch Ard Local History Group is also to be commended on producing such an attractively-designed booklet.
Ironically Kirk died while on his daily walk on Doon Hill, Aberfoyle’s own fairy hill. Whether coming from the Trossachs or Trump Towers, myths and legends often enjoy a long, but wholly unjustified, life. One such relates to the Reverend Robert Kirk. It was for long a local belief that Kirk had been carried away by the fairies, and that the body buried in the nearby kirkyard was a fairyland substitute – a changeling. In this light, it would seem that the fairies of old, like the KGB today, insisted on wreaking dire vengeance on those who revealed their secrets.