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Letter from Sir Walter Scott to the author of the Irish Fairy Legends

SIR, -- I have been obliged by the courtesy which sent me your very interesting work on "Irish Superstitions," and no less by the amusement which it has afforded me, both from the interest of the stories and the lively manner in which they are told. You are to consider this, sir, as a high compliment from one who holds him on the subject of elves, ghosts, visions, etc., nearly as strong as William Churns of Staffordshire:

"Who every year can mend your cheer
With tales both old and new."

The extreme similarity of your fictions to ours in Scotland is very striking. The Cluricaune (which is an admirable subject for a pantomime) is not known here. I suppose the Scottish cheer was not sufficient to tempt to the hearth either him, or that singular demon called by Heywood the Buttery Spirit, which diminished the profits of an unjust landlord by eating up all that he cribbed for his guests.

The beautiful superstition of the Banshee seems in a great measure peculiar to Ireland, though in some Highland families there is such a spectre, particularly in that of MacLean of Lochbuy; but I think I could match all your other tales with something similar.

I can assure you, however, that the progress of philosophy has not even yet entirely "pulled the old woman out of our hearts," as Addison expresses it. Witches are still held in reasonable detestation, although we no longer burn or even score above the breath. As for the water bull, they live who will take their oaths to having seen him emerge from a small lake on the boundary of my property here, scarce large enough to have held him, I should think. Some traits in his description seem to answer the hippopotamus, and these are always mentioned in Highland and Lowland story. Strange if we could conceive there existed, under a tradition so universal, some shadowy reference to those fossil bones of animals which are so often found in the lakes and bogs.

But to leave antediluvian stories for the freshest news from Fairyland, I cannot resist the temptation to send you an account of King Oberon's court, which was verified before me as a magistrate, with all the solemnities of a court of justice, within this fortnight past. A young shepherd, a lad of about eighteen years of age, well brought up and of good capacity, and, that I may be perfectly accurate, in the service of a friend, a most respectable farmer at Oakwood, on the estate of Hugh Scott, Esq. of Harden, made oath and said, that going to look after some sheep which his master had directed to be put upon turnips, and passing in the grey of the morning a small copse-wood adjacent to the River Etterick, he was surprised at the sight of four or five little personages, about two feet or thirty inches in height, who were seated under the trees and apparently in deep conversation. At this singular appearance he paused till he bad refreshed his noble courage with a prayer and a few recollections of last Sunday's sermon, and then advanced to the little party. But observing that, instead of disappearing, they seemed to become yet more magnificently distinct than before, and now doubting nothing, from their foreign dresses and splendid decorations, that they were the choice ornaments of the fairy court, he fairly turned tail and went "to raise the water," as if the South'ron had made a raid. Others came to the rescue, and yet the fairy cortege awaited their arrival in still and silent dignity. I wish I could stop here, for the devil take all explanations, they stop duels and destroy the credit of apparitions, neither allow ghosts to be made in an honourable way or to be 'believed in (poor souls !) when they revisit the glimpses of the moon.

I must however explain, like other honourable gentlemen, elsewhere. You must know, that like our neighbours, we have a school of arts for our mechanics at O--,a small manufacturing town in this country, and. that the tree of knowledge there, as elsewhere, produces its usual crop of good and evil. The day before this avatar of Oberon was a fair-day at Selkirk, and amongst other popular divertisements was one which, in former days, I would have called a puppet show, and its master a puppet showman. He has put me right, however, by informing me, that he writes 'himself artist from Vauxhall, and that he exhibits fantoccini; call them what you will, it seems they gave great delight to the unwashed artificers of G----. Formerly they would have been contented to wonder and applaud, but not so were they satisfied in our modern days of investigation, for they broke into Punch's sanctuary forcibly, after he had been laid aside for the evening, made violent seizure of his person, and carried off him, his spouse, and heaven knows what captives besides, in their plaid nooks, to be examined at leisure. All this they literally did (forcing a door to accomplish their purpose) in the spirit of science alone, or but slightly stimulated by that of malt whisky, with which last we have been of late deluged. Cool reflection came as they retreated by the banks of the Etterick; they made the discovery that they could no more make Punch move than Lord -- could make him speak; and recollecting, I believe, that there was such a person as the Sheriff in the world, they abandoned their prisoners, in hopes, as they pretended, that they would be found and restored in safety to their proper owner.

It is only necessary to add that the artist had his losses made good by a subscription, and the scientific inquirers escaped with a small fine, as a warning not to indulge such an irregular spirit of research in future.

As this somewhat tedious story contains the very last news from Fairyland, I hope you will give it acceptance, and beg you to believe me very much, your obliged and thankful servant,


ABBOTSFORD, MELROSE, 27th April, 1825