Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

You don't need to travel to Ireland to find fairies

There are stories of wee folk right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In all of the legends, N.L.'s little people are mischief-makers, writes Ainsley Hawthorn

The Faerie Ring in Harbour Grace, often referred to as a fairy circle, was said to be a gathering place for fairies a century ago. (Vicky Taylor-Hood)

Somewhere in Harbour Grace, hidden deep in a field, stands a perfect circle of towering beech trees. Their branches stretch outward in all directions, and their gnarled roots grasp the earth below them, where no other living thing grows. In the dark of night, legend has it, tiny beings wearing green clothing and red stocking caps dance hand-in-hand there under the moonlight.

Curious souls be warned: if you venture to that place and catch the little folk dancing, they may whisk you away with them to their underground kingdom, never to return. Or you may be fined for trespassing, since this fairy circle now sits on private property.

According to tradition, reclusive little people with supernatural powers have lived alongside human beings in Newfoundland and Labrador from time immemorial.

The Innu of Nitassinan have stories of the Apci'lnic, or Little Ones, a race of knee-high beings who live in thickets or under the earth. They are no sooner seen than vanish in an instant.

In Inuit culture, the little folk wear clothing trimmed with white fur and carry tiny ice chisels and scoops, like miniature versions of human beings.

The Wiklatmu'j, or Stone People, speak Mi'kmaq and dress like the Mi'kmaq people did before the arrival of Europeans. While only the size of toddlers, they're swifter than lightning and stronger than a human adult. When they speak their voices are high-pitched as birdsong.

Settlers from Celtic cultures, too, encountered diminutive human-like beings in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the stories they told about them drew on the traditions of their ancestral homes in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. They called these wee folk fairies.

Makers of mischief

In all of the legends, Newfoundland and Labrador's little people are mischief-makers. Many of their antics are harmless, if exasperating. They knock over stacks of firewood. They braid the tails of horses in the stable. They weave illusions to lead berry-pickers in circles.

A statue of what a fairies from Newfoundland and Labrador might have looked like. The statues are on display as part of the fairy garden at the Cupids Legacy Centre in Cupids. (Cupids Legacy Centre/Facebook)

One common power of Newfoundland fairies is the ability to make copses of trees grow in the blink of an eye.

In a 1984 interview with folklorist Barbara Rieti, Marie Meaney of Riverhead described walking home with a friend one evening when she was a teenager, only to find the path blocked by a forest that hadn't been there before. Running back the way they had come, the girls were advised by an old woman to strew bread in the lane where the trees now stood.

Sure enough, as the girls tossed the bread before them, the trees disappeared. When Marie arrived home breathless and told her mother what had happened, her mother nodded knowingly, saying: "That's fairies. The fairies live over there in the hollow of that road. Ye were in their way, so they had to block your passage until they got through themselves."

Sometimes sinister

Some of the little people's tricks, though, are of a more sinister character.

If a pleasant baby suddenly became cranky, a chubby baby shriveled, or a healthy baby sickly, the real infant was believed to have been stolen and replaced with a changeling, or fairy substitute. Sneak into the nursery and you might catch this counterfeit baby smoking a corncob pipe.

The Apci'lnic amused themselves by abducting children and abandoning them far from home. In the early 20th century, a boy named Meme'o was found wandering in the woods by the Cree of Mistissini in Northern Quebec, who share legends of the Apci'lnic with the Innu. Meme'o was unable to speak and seemed to have no idea where he had come from. Believing him to have been abducted from a distant place by the wee folk, the community adopted him.

A baby being snatched by fairies, from the book Household Stories from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm, 1922 (Public Domain)

The little people sometimes even snatched adults. A woman named Liz Fagan, who lived in Graven Bank in St. Mary's Bay, went missing for three months and rumours swirled that she had been taken by the fairies, until one day she suddenly reappeared on her mother's doorstep.

"Oh!" said her mother. "Now I have you!"

"No, you haven't, Mother," Liz replied. "Not now, not ever."

Liz turned and ran, and her mother chased her out onto the landwash, where she lost track of her. Liz never returned, but sometimes, late in the evening, locals would glimpse her sitting on a rock at the place where her mother had last seen her. The spot came to be known as Liz's Point.

Bread in the pocket

So how can you protect yourself and your loved ones from fairy mischief?

Traditional charms include carrying bread in your pocket or wearing a piece of clothing inside out while walking in the wilderness.

Even indoors, never leave a baby alone, especially near an open window, and don't speak of the fairies by name in case they overhear you — instead, call them the good people or the fair folk.

Finally, should you ever happen to come upon a fairy despite your precautions, stay silent and give no sign that you've seen them, lest they be tempted to spirit you away.

As opportunities for community storytelling have dwindled in this province, fairy lore has begun to fade.

But the wee folk are tenacious creatures. Legends have always portrayed them as wild and magical beings pushed to the margins by the encroachment of humanity, on the verge of oblivion, yet still their stories persist generation after generation.

In the words of W.B. Yeats, the fairy kingdom "is more stubborn than men dream of. It will perhaps be always going and never gone."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.