The Fairy Boy of Leith
The story of the Fairy boy of Leith is relatively unknown today, and doesn’t appear to have been recently recounted since its last appearance in the 1970s Reader’s Digest compendium, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. It tells of a boy living in the port town of Leith, then adjacent to Edinburgh, who was famous because each week he would disappear into a hill where he was reputed to commune with the fair folk; to dance, sing and feast. At least that is what the Reader’s Digest account states, as indeed do other more recent retellings of the story. However revisiting the original source gives a very different impression.
The story has been retold a number of times, possibly most famously in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian but the original story can be traced back to a 17th century account in Richard Bovet’s Pandaemonium or the Devil’s Cloister (1684). As to be expected, there were differences in both accounts. What was not expected was the extent to which the Fairy Boy myth had been blown up over the years.
All of the stories follow the same basic tale; that Captain George Burton, whilst staying in Leith, came across a boy known locally as the ‘Fairy Boy’ who had been given the gift of second sight by the fairies. Every Thursday night, the boy would go to Calton Hill (then a remote place between Leith and Edinburgh) where he would enter the hill through huge gates, only visible to those with ‘the fairy gift’ and commune with the fairies. At these gatherings the boy would play drums for the little folk who danced and feasted. One Thursday night, the Captain, and some acquaintances, held the boy in conversation, hoping to avert his trip to the hill, but the boy gave them the slip, but was found and brought back to the house, where upon he managed to slip away for a second time. There the story ends with most accounts stating that the boy made off to Calton Hill to once again meet with the fair folk.
But Bovet’s original account differs considerably. His book is a collection of stories from around the British Isles, with the Fairy Boy story being taken from a letter written to Bovet ‘by my worth friend Captain George Burton in his own hand’ . The letter is transcribed by Bovet, with his own conclusions on it.
The letter tells of the experience of Captain Burton when he was based in Leith, with the events recounted occurring in 1648 or 1649 at the latest, some 15 years prior to the letter being written! Burton would regularly meet acquaintances at a house where they would drink wine. It was owned by a woman who was, in Burton’s words, of good reputation, and it was her who told Burton of the ‘fairy boy’, a child who had the gift of second sight. The woman showed him the boy who was playing in the street. Burton guessed he was not more than ten or eleven years old. At this point we learn a bit about the character of Burton, and see the differences between the original account and the more Romantic later, modern versions. Burton’s letter states that he coerced the boy into the house with money and ‘smooth words’. Once inside, and in the presence of diverse people, Burton demanded of the boy several ‘Astrological Questions’ which the boy then answered with ‘great subtility’. Burton notes that the boy was more intelligent than he expected for someone of his age. During this, the boy starts to drum his fingers on the table. Burton asks if the boy can beat a drum. The boy replies that he can drum ‘as well as any man in Scotland for every Thursday night I beat all points to a fort of people that use to meet under Yonder Hill, pointing to the great Hill between Edinburough (sic) and Leith’.
Burton pursues this line of enquiry by asking what company the boy has there, and he replies that there is a great company of men and woman who are entertained with many types of music, and feast on meat. He even goes on to say that on many times they are carried to France or Holland in a night and return again, enjoying the pleasures of those countries; something more reminiscent of the stories from the witchcraft trials rather than of fairies. Burton then demanded to know how the boy got under the hill, and was told that there were a great pair of gates, invisible to others, beyond which were rooms large enough to accommodate most of Scotland.
Eventually Burton is told by the owner, that no one could keep the boy from his Thursday night rendezvous, and so Burton promises the boy money to meet with him in the afternoon of the following Thursday. Burton goes on to state that he arrived at the rendezvous with a group of acquaintances to prevent the boy leaving. The boy answered many questions without wanting to leave until 11 pm when he left the room without anyone noticing. When they do, Burton said that he ‘hasted to the door, and took hold of him and so returned him into the same room’. Later in the evening, as Burton and his acquaintances were watching the boy, suddenly he was gone; Burton followed him out into the street where the boy made a noise, as if he had been set upon. As people gathered to see what the commotion was, Burton lost sight of the boy. Nothing is said about where the boy goes or what happens to him, all that is mentioned is that he disappears in a crowd after shouting that he is being attacked. And so ends Burton’s letter.
Bovet adds his conclusions, stating how well known and trustworthy Burton is; that he is a well known figure in commerce circles in London, and that there is no need for Bovet to justify Burton’s integrity. Bovet concedes that he is not sure whether or not the boy had a corporeal or dream experience, and in concluding, he says that it’s strange that the boy runs away considering he was given the temptation of wine and money to keep him there, noting that money and wine are a powerful temptation to lads of his age.
There is little useful information in the original account which can indicate whether the story is true or not, with the exception of one point. Burton alleges that the boy went to ‘Yonder Hill’, interpreted as Calton Hill. These days Calton Hill is in the centre of Edinburgh but back then, before Leith became part of Edinburgh, it was between the two areas. Calton Hill sat dominant, amongst the farmland and fields, and in the 18th century the boundaries between Leith and Edinburgh was shrinking and a hundred years later the two were almost joined together. Calton Hill then, as now, has remained relatively undeveloped. So did the boy enter into the Hill?
In the 1790s Herman Lion was a Jewish merchant living in Edinburgh at the end of the 18th century. Sometime after 1791 he started looking for a burial plot for himself and his wife. Being Jewish he did not want to be buried in a Christian burial site and appealed to the Town Council to sell himself a piece of land on Calton Hill, and eventually they agreed. 200 years later, the site of Lions’ tomb was rediscovered. The Edinburgh Evening News told the story of two men in the Observatory complex on top of the hill. Apparently they climbed through a rabbit hole and ended up in the tomb. Their description of Lions tomb implies that it may have originally have been a cave or fissure. Perhaps this is the cave that the Fairy Boy use to dance in with the fair folk.
By Andrew Tibbs