Feature Articles – 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.