Top of page

The Laws of the Good People: Fairy Lore in Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth

Share this post:

As we approach the last day of the spooky season, I find myself rereading Robert Kirk’s 17th-century classic of fairy lore, The Secret Commonwealth. This book describes what people in Kirk’s time and community believed fairies were, where and how they lived, what they were able to do, and how they interacted with human beings. What I find especially interesting about the book is that Kirk describes their collective life as a commonwealth. So I wondered, if these supernatural creatures have a commonwealth, what sort of laws govern it? In this post, therefore, I thought I would try to glean what I can from Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth about the laws of the fairy realm.

Robert Kirk, a Scottish folklorist and minister, wrote The Secret Commonwealth around the year 1692. It appears, however, that the work did not find its way to publication until Sir Walter Scott published an edition of it in 1815. There is also an edition from 1893 published in cooperation with the Society for Psychical Research, to which I cite in this post.

The cover of Sir Walter Scott's 1815 edition of The Secret Commonwealth. Photo by Nathan Dorn.
The cover of Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 edition of The Secret Commonwealth. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Belief in fairies was prevalent throughout the history of Scotland. Authors Henderson and Cowan write, “There is, arguably, as much evidence of one kind or another for the activities of the fairies from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries as there is for the existence of either the Picts, the Britons, the Angles, or the Scots during the first millennium of Scottish history” (Henderson and Cowan, p. 6). Fairies in Scottish lore are a sort of spirit people that live in and around human communities. They are sometimes called the Sith, or the Good People, or the invisible folk. Their bodies are neither quite physical nor altogether ethereal. Kirk says they are, “of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight” (Kirk, p. 6). Neither angels, nor demons, they are a people apart who live invisibly among us humans. Here is what we can learn from Kirk about their laws:

General Political Situation

Kirk outlines the general political situation of fairy communities in terms that what we might now think of as a colonized society. The invisible folk are indigenous to every land, including America (Kirk, p. 57). They seem to have preceded human settlement in all the countries where humans now live, but humans have displaced them. Fairy folk formerly practiced agriculture on the surface of the earth (Kirk, p. 8). When the humans came and took possession of the land on the surface, however, they displaced the fairies, who took to living underground, in fairy hills, and in shadows or marginal areas of human society. Kirk points out that in non-Christian societies, or societies that preserve pre-Christian ways, relations between the humans and invisible folk include a sort of quid pro quo, with humans sharing the produce of their fields in the form of offerings, and otherwise managing relations with vows and exorcisms (Kirk, p. 73). Since their displacement from the land, fairy folk acquire their food primarily from hunting on and stealing from the farms of their human neighbors; this is often done by magic (Kirk, p. 11). As in some other colonized societies, the invisible folk have adopted the manner of dress and the language of the occupier in each land where they live (Kirk, p. 14). Ongoing negative feelings fairies bear toward human beings are evident in the routine way in which the invisible folk harm humans, which aggression takes the form of apparently random acts of retaliatory mischief and physical attacks, for instance, by elf-shot (Kirk, p. 6). Still, there is evidence that invisible people take responsibility in some measure for the national well-being of the countries they inhabit (Kirk, p. 57).

Constitutional Law

The overarching social organization of the Good Folk appears to depend more on custom than positive law. According to Kirk, they live in tribes, which are subdivided into orders (Kirk, p. 6) and further subdivided into clans and nuclear families (Kirk, p. 8). Whatever government they have, we are told, is run by an aristocratic class, which governs the invisible folk in each country by rule of law (Kirk, p. 6). The state, and the society as a whole, recognizes no church or any religion at all. On the contrary, they take great offense, and even flee, at the mere mention of God or Jesus (Kirk, p. 6).

Civil Law

According to Kirk, “these subterraneans have controversies, disputes, feuds and siding of parties” (Kirk, p. 25). Fairy folk do not rely on the state’s machinery of justice, but follow a custom of self-help when they perceive they have been wronged. This is most evident in their relations with human beings, who are frequently dismayed to realize that they have become the victim of such an act of retribution (e.g., Kirk, p. 13). As regards property, they jealously guard what they perceive to be their own or what is owed to them, but do not generally recognize the property rights of human beings, whose property they pilfer when it suits them (Kirk, p. 25).

Contracts

Although traditionally, people made deals with the invisible folk, this practice is probably ill-advised. Kirk notes that as to their moral character, “they do not swear or show intemperance, but they are subject to envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying and dissimulation” (Kirk, p. 25). Enter into a pact with fairy folk at your own risk.

Right to Identity

Fairies often appear in the form of specific human beings, giving the impression that the same person is in two places at the same time. This occurs so often that Kirk cites the belief that there is a double in the subterranean community for every human who lives on the earth. He calls these apparent doubles “doublemen” or “co-walkers” (Kirk, p. 9-10). In some instances, the doubleman has taken over the life of the person he resembles in an act of supernatural identity theft. Kirk takes the idea of the double further, noting that there is a double of every living creature on earth that lives “in some other element.” The fairy world is a sort of etherial mirror version of the physical world.

Abduction and Domestic Slavery

The dim view that fairy folk take on the rights of others can be very extreme. Kirk points out that one common practice is abduction of human beings. Children are stolen from their homes and “adopted” and made heirs of fairy families. Women are abducted and forced to serve as wet-nurses in fairy homes. To modern ears, folk ideas like these sound like traditional ways of explaining away murders or runaways, or abandonments, as though to say, “the fairies spirited them away.” Kirk, however, writes, “women are yet alive who tell they were taken away when in child-bed to nurse Fairie Children, a lingering voracious image of their (them?) being left in their place, (like their reflexion in a mirror)” (Kirk, p. 13). One particular woman relates that she was taken to a fairy home and was forced to nurse a fairy infant. When the infant was weened she was set free. In the meantime, however, a double of her remained with her husband, which in the interim grew sick, died and was buried. When the abducted woman was allowed to return, she found that her husband and her entire community believed she was dead. After some convincing, her husband received her as his wife and they went on to have several children together (Kirk, p. 33-34).

Immigration Law

We’ll conclude this analysis with a look at immigration. The boundary between the human community and the Secret Commonwealth is somewhat, but not very, porous. Kirk mentions a couple of ways in which humans can leave the surface world and join the society of invisible people. The most obvious way is by abduction, which we mentioned above. But Kirk also cites an opinion that holds that the invisible folk are the spirits of the deceased. As the dead leave their bodies, they may be diverted into this state and remain there for many years before moving on to the next world (Kirk, p. 18).

Title page of The Secret Commonwealth. Photo by Nathan Dorn
Title page of The Secret Commonwealth. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

References

Henderson, Lizanne. Scottish fairy belief: a history / Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2001.

Henderson, Lizanne. Untitled. Folklore. V. 114, no. 2 (2003), pp. 278–279.

Hunter, Michael (2001a). “The Discovery of Second Sight in Late 17th-Century Scotland”. History Today. V. 51, no. 6 (2001), pp. 48–53.

Hunter, Michael. The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2001.

Lang, Andrew. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. London: David Nutt, In the Strand, 1893.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (Walter Yeeling), 1878-1965. The fairy-faith in Celtic countries. N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2002.

Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Comments (2)

  1. What a fascinating post, Nathan–Happy Halloween!

  2. I won’t lie, I am completely jealous of the fact that you have this book. Love that you posted this. I am currently writing a dark fairy fantasy and the info you have here will be so helpful.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.