As the feast of All Souls nears, spare a piteous thought, if you will, for the poor Rev. Robert Kirk, who lived from 1644 to 1692, and whose mortal remains rest—or do they?—in his parish kirkyard in Aberfoyle, a Scottish village lying near the Laggan River and at the foot of Craigmore. The great slab of his gravestone is in much the same condition as most of the other funerary markers that survive from the seventeenth century in those latitudes: smoothed and darkened by the winds and rains of three centuries, brindled with dark green and pale glaucous lichens, gently sunken to one side by a slight subsidence in the soil, and bearing an inscription (“Robertus Kirk, A.M. / Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen”) now worn down to a shallow and barely legible intaglio of milky gray. Such is the sad impermanence of stone.
Perhaps it does not matter all that much, however; the marker may be only a cenotaph, when all is said and done. Local legend has it that there is nothing more interred beneath that slowly dissolving monument than a coffin filled with rocks, the good reverend’s body having been spirited away by fairies soon after his sepulture, to be kept till the end of time in their mansions beneath Doon Hill (the Anglicized version, I assume, of “dun sitheen” or “fairy knoll”), by which device they also keep his soul imprisoned in the great pine that grows on the hill’s crest. Another, less terrible version of the same story says that Kirk is not so much a prisoner of the fairies as an ambassador, able to convey messages between two realms that over the years have become increasingly estranged from one another. Whatever the case, the great tree of Doon Hill is still called the Minister’s Pine, and one to this day can occasionally find bright strips of cloth—upon which wishes have been written—strewn about it or tied to the branches of surrounding trees.
If the legend is true, Rev. Kirk was the victim not only of the spite of a notoriously capricious folk, but of his own curiosity. A scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, a theologian and student of antique lore, Kirk’s greatest intellectual achievements were as a natural scientist (so to speak) of the hidden realm. Thus he is best remembered for his treatise of 1691 The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.
There is some dispute regarding whether a published edition of this work was actually indited in Kirk’s time, or whether instead Sir Walter Scott’s edition of 1815 was its first true appearance in print; but the form in which it is best known now is in Andrew Lang’s critical edition of 1893 (which the always indispensable Dover Publications has recently made available again at a reasonable price). In any event, it was not long after completing this book, which may have revealed more than was prudent, that Kirk met his end. He had trespassed perhaps once too often upon the clandestine counsels of the Unseelie Court and so, on one of his frequent nighttime walks upon Doon Hill—which lay between his parish and his house, and which he was convinced was an entranceway into the other land—he simply fell into a swoon and died (or appeared to die). His true fate would have remained unknown, however, had not Kirk, shortly after his obsequies, made a posthumous visit in a vision to his cousin, Graham of Duchray, in order to relate what had actually happened and to entreat his cousin to assist him in escaping his captors. At the time of Kirk’s death (or perhaps one should say abduction), his wife had been with child and, in the time since, had been delivered of a son; Kirk promised that he would appear as a phantom at the child’s baptism, and that if his cousin would at that moment throw an iron knife at the apparition, Kirk would be released from his bondage. Graham of Duchray came prepared on the day, but the actual sight of his cousin’s ghost—which did indeed appear—so froze him with wonder that he forgot to do as he had been bidden until it was too late. And so Kirk vanished again, and his spirit returned to the pine on Doon Hill.
Sad though Kirk’s fate was, we should remember that he was neither the first nor the last naturalist to fall a prey to the species he studied, and we should be glad that we still have the fruit of his researches to hand. The Hidden Commonwealth rewards frequent readings, even by persons so fanatical in their prejudices as to refuse to believe its reports (such tragically deluded souls can treat the book as only a compendium of folklore, if they must, and still profit from it). Kirk’s real concern, as it happens, is not simply the fairy realm, but also those rare mortals privileged with the ability to see its inhabitants with their own eyes. It is, to a great extent, a treatise on the “second sight,” a gift Kirk believed to be the special possession of a very few—a great many of whom were, like Kirk himself, seventh sons—and to be demonstrable not only from anecdote, but also from scripture. Not to everyone do the “peaceable folk” appear, it seems, but a wealth of anecdotes—principally anecdotes concerning remarkable instances of foreknowledge on the part of recognized seers, or concerning their encounters with the specters of persons who had died far away—prove that there are those who, from birth, are able to pierce the veil within which the fairy realm is hidden. And these persons, says, Kirk, are of the same family as the prophets of ancient Israel, and of all prophets in all lands and among all peoples.
That said, one does learn quite a lot of elfin lore from Kirk. He relates stories of cruel mischief, tells of the fairies’ wicked habit of carrying away new mothers to act as wet nurses to fairy infants, recalls tales as well of their frequent benignity, discourses on the moral character of the “subterranean people,” explains how each of us is attended through life by an ethereal double who sometimes lingers on in this world after we die, and so on. These beings are, says Kirk, nothing but those elemental guardians of the nations who, according to the New Testament, have been appointed as wardens in the earth, but who frequently forget their roles and resist the sway of God. They are dangerous, but not evil; they are, rather, morally neutral, like the forces of material nature.
One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine—a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold—who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.
In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.
Anyway, so as not to wax too facetious, let me make three observations about Kirk, and then a final observation about his way of seeing the world.
First, it is certainly the case that he undertook his researches into folklore out of a genuine interest in the traditions of the Celtic north, and also out of what appears to be a deep conviction that those traditions touch upon a real dimension of vital intelligence or intelligences residing in the world all about us, occasionally visible and audible to us, but for the most part outside the reach of our dull, earthbound senses.
Second, though, there is good reason to believe that he wrote The Secret Commonwealth, and placed so strong an emphasis on scriptural attestations of the reality both of elemental spirits and of the second sight, because he lived in the days of the early modern witch-hunting craze, when more than a few harmless Scottish country folk who innocently dabbled in the lore of their culture had found themselves arraigned by Presbyterian courts for practicing the black arts; Kirk may very well have been attempting to enter a brief in behalf of these unfortunate souls, by providing a theological warrant for their beliefs.
And, third, it may be the case that such a theological warrant really could be found in the Bible, and Kirk was simply a more careful reader than most other Christians on this matter; after all, though Christian tradition came soon to abominate all the lesser spirits venerated or feared in pre-Christian culture as just so many demons, this was not the view taken of them in the Pauline corpus; there they appear as perhaps mutinous deputies of God, part of the compromised cosmic hierarchy of powers and principalities, whom Christ by his resurrection has subdued, but not necessarily as servants of evil; Colossians 1:20 even speaks of them as being not only conquered by Christ, but reconciled with God.
Finally, though, and perhaps a mite perversely, I want to urge the essential sanity of Kirk’s approach to reality. One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion—but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the w
orld depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal.
Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations. Or, I suppose, another way of saying this would be that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us: a capacity that endows us with that spiritual eros that allows us to know and love the world, and that we are wise to continue to cultivate in ourselves even after age and disillusion have weakened our sight.
So, again, spare a thought for the soul of the good Rev. Robert Kirk, imprisoned in the great pine atop Doon Hill.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.