The very numerous fairy animals, of which there are many traditions in the British Isles, may be divided into two main classes.
There are wild ones, that exist for their own purposes and in their own right, and the domesticated ones bred and used by the fairies.
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these two types, because the fairies occasionally allow their creatures to roam freely, as, for instance, the Cu Sith of the Highlands, which is generally kept as a watch dog in the Brughs, but is at times free to roam as its pleasure, and the Crodh Mara, which sometimes visit human herds. But the distinction is generally clear.
Fairies also have the power to shapeshift into animals, goats and deer being among their favorite shape.
The two kinds of fairy creatures occur very early in our traditions and are mentioned in the medieval chronicles. Examples are the Grant, a medieval Bogey-Beast mentioned by Gervase of Tilbury, and the small dogs and horses to be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ story of Elidor.
The Fairies are said to have cows like those of men. The Fairy cow is dun, speckled, red and hornless. When one of them appears among a herd of cattle the whole fold of them grows frantic, and follows lowing wildly. The strange animal disappears by entering a rock or knoll, and the others, unless intercepted, follow and are never more seen.. Occasionally these were independent Fairy cow known as beneficent, not dangerous, like the Dun Cow of Kirkham, the Elf-Bull and the Gwartheg Y Llyn of Wales. There were, however, ferocious ghost bulls like the Great Bull of Bagbury. Cows, said to have been found on the shores of Loscantire in Harris, Scorrybrec in Skye, and on the Island of Bernera, were called cro sith, `fairy cows’, because they were of no mortal breed, but of a kind believed to live under the sea on meillich, seaweed.
Everywhere, in the Highlands, the red-deer are associated with the Fairies, and in some places are said to be their only cattle. Moreover, this association is enhanced by the Fairy-like appearance and habits of the deer. Timid and easily startled by every appearance and noise, it is said to be unmoved by the presence of the Fairies. Popular belief also says that no deer is found dead with age, and that its horns, which it sheds every year, are not found, because hid by the Fairies. In their transformations it was peculiar for the Fairy woman to assume the shape of the red-deer, and in that guise they were often encountered by the hunter. The elves have a particular dislike to those who kill the hinds, and, on finding them in lonely places, delight in throwing elf-bolts at them. When a dead deer is carried home at night the Fairies lay their weight on the bearer’s back, till he feels as if he had a house for a burden.
Again there are two kinds of Fairy horses. The first one is solitary, wild and untamed. Examples of these free Fairy Horses are the dangerous Each Uisge of the Highlands, the Kelpies, the Cabyll Ushtey of the Isle of Man, and such Bogies as the Brag, the Trash and the Shock. All these have some power of shape-shifting.
There are also numerous accounts in the Heroic Fairy legends of the horses used by the fairies. All the Heroic Fairies spent a great part of their time in solemn rides, and their horses, large or small according to the riders, were often described.
The fairies described by Elidor were small, but noble, and they had horses and hounds proportioned to their size, the Welsh Gwragedd Annwyn rode on milk-white horses and the Fairy Rade described in the Scottish ballads was on horses of varying colours richly caparisoned with tinkling bells. The Tuatha De Danann, who were conquered and driven underground by the Milesians and who afterwards dwindled down into the Daoine Sidhe, were the very cream of the heroic fairies, and their horses were eloquently described by Lady Wilde in her Ancient Legends of Ireland :
And the breed of horses they reared could not be surpassed in the world – fleet as the wind, with the arched neck and the broad chest and the quivering nostril, and the large eye that showed they were made of fire and flame, and not of dull, heavy earth. And the Tuatha made stables for them in the great caves of the hills, and they were shod with silver and golden bridles, and never a slave was allowed to ride them. A splendid sight was the cavalcade of the Tuatha-de-Danann knights. Seven-score steeds, each with a jewel on his forehead like a star, and seven-score horsemen, all the sons of kings, in their green mantles fringed with gold, and golden helmets on their head, and golden greaves on their limbs, and each knight having in his hand a golden spear. And so they lived for a hundred years and more, for by their enchantments they could resist the power of death.
Sometimes the malicious Faeries borrowed the horses from farmers to ride them on the lands. When horses neigh at night it is because they are ridden by the Fairies, and pressed too hard. If the hearer exclaims aloud, “Your saddle and pillion be upon you”, the Fairies are supposed to tumble to the ground.
The Fairy dog is as large as a two-year-old stirk, a dark green colour, with ears of deep green. It is of lighter colour towards the feet. In some cases it has a long tail rolled up in a coil on its back, but others have a tail flat and plaited like the straw rug of a pack-saddle. The Black Dogs are the most common of the wild dogs in England, but there are many bogey-beast dogs, the Barguest, the Gally-Trot, the Mauthe Doog of Man, and the Shock. The domestic Fairy Dogs most vividly remembered are Bran and Sceolan, the hunting dogs of Finn and in the Cu Sith, the Hounds of the Hills in Somerset.
The Fairy hound is kept tied as a watch dog in the Brugh, but at times accompanied the women on their expeditions or roamed about alone, making its lairs in clefts of the rocks. Its motion was silent and gliding, and its bark a rude clamour. It went in a straight line, and its bay has been last heard, by those who listened for it, far out at sea. Its immense footmarks, as large as the spread of the human hand, have been found next day traced in the mud, in the snow, or on the sands. Others say it makes noise like a horse galloping, and its bay is like that of another dog, only louder. There is a considerable interval between each bark, and at the third the terror-struck hearer is overtaken and destroyed, unless he has by that time reached a place of safety.
Ordinary dogs have a mortal aversion to the Fairies, and give chase whenever they are around. On coming back, the hair is found to be scraped off their bodies, all except the ears, and they die soon after.
Elfin Cats are explained to be of a wild, not a domesticated, breed, to be as large as dogs, of a black colour, with a white spot on the breast, and to have arched backs and erect bristles. There was a fairy cat in the Highlands, the Cait Sith, and a demon-god-cat, Big Ears, which appeared after horrible invocations.
Many maintain these wild cats have no connection with the fairies, but are witches in disguise.
Many birds, the owl, the wren, the eagle and the raven had strong fairy associations. The cuckoo is a `Fairy bird’, because, as is said, its winter dwelling is underground. The salmon was a fairy creature, and even insects had their part.
A Fairy Dog
GOING home from Pentre Voelas Church, the good wife of Hafod y Gareg found a little dog in an exhausted state on the ground. She took it up tenderly and carried it home in her apron. This she did partly from natural kindliness of heart and partly from fear, because she remembered what had happened to her cousin of Bryn Heilyn. She had come across a strange little dog and treated it cruelly. The fairies had come to her as she was taking glasdwr (which is butter-milk diluted with water) to the hayfield. They seized her and inquired whether she would travel above wind, mid wind or below wind. She ought to have selected the middle course, which would have meant a pleasant voyage through the air at a moderate height, equally removed from the clouds and the earth. Above wind is a giddy and terrible passage through the thin ether between the worlds, and it was well that she did not choose it. But the course she made choice of, below wind, was almost as bad, because she was snatched through miry bog and swampy lea, through brambles and briars, until all her clothes were torn off her body, and she was brought back to her home scratched and bleeding all over.
The good wife of Hafod y Gareg had no desire for any such excursions, and she made a nice soft bed for the fairy dog in the pantry, and fed it well. The following day a company of fairies came to the farmhouse to make enquiries about it. She told them it was safe and sound, and that they were welcome to take it away. In gratitude for her kindness, they asked her which she would prefer, a clean or a dirty cowyard. Reflecting that you cannot have a clean cowyard unless your cows are very few in number, she gave the right answer, a dirty cowyard. She found two cows for every one she had possessed before, and their milk made the best butter in the whole neighbourhood.