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Highland Folklore:
The Secret Commonwealth Revisited


It is just over three hundred years since Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, died at the age of fifty two. But the question remains, did he really die or was he 'taken'? Taken, that is, by the Good People, the elusive folk who lived under the earth in the green hills.

The youngest and seventh son of James Kirk, Robert studied theology at St. Andrews and took his master's degree at Edinburgh. He became the minister of Balquidder and moved to Aberfoyle in 1685, having published a psalter in Gaelic the previous year. He had also been involved in preparing a Gaelic translation of the Bible. We might expect a man of his background to have been a staunch supporter of established orthodoxy but this was no ordinary preacher. He recorded his thoughts in a manuscript dated 1691 entitled "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies". There is no mention of hell and damnation, just a fair and reasonable account of the unseen world.

There is nothing sentimental in his writing, and those seers who had the ability to witness the people of peace regarded it as an affliction rather than a gift. The Tabhaiser, or Seer, "is not terrified with their sight when he calls them, but seeing them in a surpryse (as often he does) frights him extreamly". These are clearly not the tinselled fairies of Victorian England but the wild and elemental spirits of nature. Two ways of gaining the second sight are described. The first is to acquire a tedder (tether) of hair which has bound a corpse to the bier. With this wound round the waist one must stoop down and look back through the legs until a funeral passes. The alternative is to find an accomplished seer who will place his right foot over the candidate's left and lay his hand upon his head. This confers the power to see and seems not unlike descriptions of admission to a witch coven.

Kirk's account of the secret commonwealth combines the banal with the surreal. They live in houses underground that are large and fair, lit with lamps and fires but without fuel to sustain them. They may abduct mortal women to nurse their children. Their clothing and speech is that of the country they live in. Their life span is longer than ours, but eventually they die. They have rulers and laws but no discernible religion. Moreover, unlike us, they do not have a dense, material form but have, in Kirk's words, "Bodies of congealed Air". Every Quarter they travel to fresh lodgings, a reference perhaps to the elemental tides of the seasons.

It is possible that Kirk employed seers to give him information about the dark and silent world, just as Dr. Dee relied upon Edward Kelly a century before. An odd story of what became of the minister of Aberfoyle remains. His successor, the Rev. Dr Grahame, describes how Robert Kirk was walking one day on a fairy hill. He collapsed and was taken for dead. After the funeral, his form was seen by a relative. The spectre urged him to go to their cousin Grahame of Duchray. Kirk was, he explained, not dead but a captive in the elemental world. His widow was pregnant and he foretold that if Duchray came to the christening, he, Robert Kirk, would appear. Duchray must then throw his dirk over the head of the apparition. If this was done, Kirk would be freed. Sure enough, the birth and the christening came. Grahame of Duchray was there, just as he had been bidden. During the ceremony the outline of the former minister could be seen. Duchray was so taken aback that he failed to throw the dirk. And the author of the Secret Commonwealth disappeared, never to be seen again.

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