The Genius Scholar Who Lost His Life to Fairies
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
The first man to translate the Bible into Scots Gaelic was found dead in his nightgown, days after producing a book that told all on the secret life of fairies...
" There Bodies of congealled Air are ƒome tymes caried aloft." - The Secret Commonwealth, Reverend Robert Kirk, 1961
Summer has crumbled away with the sound of dead leaves crunching under our feet. The nights are drawing in as the setting sun slices through the trees- their branches undressing, ready to put on their winter coats. Nothing beats an autumnal walk, breathing in deep the faint scent of bonfires carried on the crisp wind.
Doon Hill is an enchanted place, particularly when lit with the golden hues of October. It’s quiet as the woodland creatures hunker down for hibernation. You find peace as you follow the winding trail, marked with wild mushrooms and tiny houses carved out of tree trunks by local makers. If you look closer and hold your breath, you may be lucky enough to catch the glittering wing of a fairy caught in the dimming sunlight, for Doon Hill is also known as Fairy Knowe - home of the fairies.
It is also the final resting place of Reverend Robert Kirk, a local minister who held a service on the virtues of God, His angels… oh and fairies. His sermons were peppered with his own tales on the secret lives of the Good People, a term used for fairies at the time. Born in Aberfoyle, Perthshire on the eve of 9 December 1644, Robert was the seventh son of a relatively poor minister and said to have been gifted with second sight. He became an educated and accomplished scholar, obtaining a degree and a doctorate in theology from Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities. Possibly one of the most intelligent men of his time, Robert produced the first translation of the Bible into his native Gaelic language, spoken widely throughout the region. He became minister of Aberfoyle in 1685, taking over from his father at the parish church, which now lies in ruins at the foot of the hill, and the site where Robert is buried.
"These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.”
Brought up amongst the old traditions of the Highlands where belief in fairies was commonplace, and with his supposed gift of second sight, Robert saw nothing incompatible between his Christian beliefs and the supernatural. The minister believed that Doon Hill was enchanted with fairies living among the locals. Such was his commitment and belief in these mysterious creatures, he published a book called The Secret Commonwealth in 1691, an essay on the nature and social structure of supernatural beings or fairies. In this book, he describes Doon Hill as being the gateway to the land of the fairies.
Doon Hill is otherwise known as the Fairy Knowe or Dun Sithean in Scots Gaelic- dun meaning hillfort and sithean as in sith - the term used for fairies (and also the baddies in George Lucas' Star Wars). Delving into the history of the site itself also is somewhat a mystery. The hill itself has a conical shape within an otherwise relatively flat landscape. In the UK, some conical hills have been considered sacred places, for example, Glastonbury Tor has been linked to Merlin and has a rich history of spiritual worship.
Archaeological excavation carried out in the 1960's suggested the site had two halls, early historic and dated to the AD 500s and 600s. Recent archaeological study reveals that the first hall was built about 6000 years ago by Scotland’s earliest farmers. Why two timber halls of similar form were built on the same site 4,000 years apart in time remains a mystery. Graves and the remains of cremated human bone also found on the hill indicate this site was once used as a cemetery in the Bronze Age.
"These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People … are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old."
When I first heard about the minister's legend, I imaged Robert as this eccentric and somewhat disheveled minister, hammered on absinthe (wormwood-flavoured wine), and stumbling into the woods after an hallucination. However, after intense research, it appears Robert was somewhat level-headed and open to the beliefs of those that surrounded him.
While many in the Church strode to suppress such beliefs, the minister did not condemn those who believed in the supernatural. The Celts held firmly to their superstitions as many still do today. Robert seeked to investigate this strong belief in supernatural beings. He believed the fairies or Sleagh Maith were a fact in nature, which could be investigated as a matter of scientific enquiry and then incorporated into the Christian faith. In his research, he collected several personal accounts and stories of those who claimed to have encountered them.
However, this research grew to obsession, and ultimately led to his death. Loved ones grew concerned, particularly the minister’s pregnant wife. Robert would walk daily from his parish to the hill. It was said that the minister would spend time lying on the Hill with his ear to the ground, listening for the sound of fairy activity, and only leave when his wife eventually came to collect him. This to me further clarifies Robert’s growing compulsion to hunt for fairies, no man of sound mind would allow his pregnant wife to trudge up a hill to drag him back home. I suppose the modern day equivalent would be unplugging the Xbox.
This obsession turned deadly on the evening of 14 May 1692, not long after his finishing his book, when Robert's lifeless body was found dead in his nightgown upon Doon Hill of unknown circumstances. Today, it is likely that he may have died of a heart attack, however the strange circumstances of his death fed the town gossip. Did he reveal too much? Did he make a deal?
In his sermons and his book, the minister had produced graphic accounts of his encounters with the fairies, drawn from what he witnessed on his nightly wanderings alone on the hill. He described in vivid detail their customs, appearance, clothing; even down to what they ate. This led to many speculating the fairies grew concerned over the minister revealing their secrets and set out to seek revenge. Local stories spread that Robert had fallen into an unconscious state during one of his nightly ventures to the hill and the fairies carried off his soul.
It is worth mentioning that Robert did not make it to see his book published. Only a hundred copies were made and lay undiscovered until the 19th century. Our beloved poet and hunter of lost treasures, Sir Walter Scott came across The Secret Commonwealth and published it in 1815, under the title Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies.
To this day his soul is said to be trapped wandering the fairy realm, whereas others have suggested that he is now acting as a gatekeeper between the two worlds. His grave lies in the parish graveyard, overlooking the hill and glittering with silver coins left by visitors as offerings. Speculation remains as to whether his body is indeed buried in the soil of the parish or whether it is in fact “fairy stock” that lies there - a wooden image in his likeness left by fairies to cover their tiny tracks.
Whilst on the topic, it is worth noting a key trait in fairy lore that fairies would replace our loved ones with their own. You may have heard of the term “changeling”, a belief so deep rooted in Celtic culture it would lead to murder. Children and, often, newborns were left out in the open, placed upon a fairy ring (a ring of fungi or stones naturally formed believed to be portals to the fairy realm) in the belief that they were in fact a changeling - a doppelganger from the fairy realm who had been swapped. The only way someone would get their loved one back were to leave the impostor at the very place they believed they had come from. Sadly, most infants never made it through the cold night.
"...light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight."
Accounts such as these emphasise how unshakable the Celts were in their beliefs. Looking back, we could put it down to paranoia and fear, stemmed from the confirmation bias of these small villages. As for the cases of infants left out in the woods, it may have in fact been down to postnatal depression left untreated, caused by the trauma of childbirth. Naturally, rumors spread regarding the mystery surrounding the minister’s death. Reverend Patrick Graham, one of Robert’s successors, would preach the events that followed. According to Patrick, Robert appeared at the birth of his posthumous child. He spoke with his wife and requested she call for his cousin, Graham of Duchray, to inform him that he was in fact not dead and that he had actually fallen “in a swoon” upon the hill, where he was carried away to the Fairy Realm. Robert conducted an elaborate plan to escape, by appearing at the baptism of his son and having his cousin throw a dirk (a small dagger) over his apparition to severe him from captivity. However, as the clock struck at the appointed time and Robert appeared on cue, his cousin; filled with terror at the sight of his undead relative, failed to throw the dirk and Robert left heartbroken through another door, thus banished to the Fairy Realm forever.
So did this genius scholar, who was considered so intelligent no one thought to question the state of his mental health, who had grown so obsessed that he may have become blind to tell-tale signs of ill health, whose nightly adventures out into the bitter cold inevitably become too much for his body to take, leading him to collapse from a heart attack at the age of 52? Or like many others in his homeland, did he really believe fairies existed, and on this quest for answers, he lost his life to the very creatures he dedicated his life to researching - like a 17th century Steve Irwin?
The hills have eyes, so they say, and Doon Hill has yet to reveal what it witnessed on the night of Robert’s death. Some may say the minister’s soul remains there. Crowning the top of the hill, in the centre of a small clearing, lies an ancient Scots Pine. The towering tree is known as the ‘Minister’s Pine’, visible from miles around with its darker foliage and said to house the spirit of Robert. Here, the trees are adorned with brightly coloured rags and notes - messages scrawled from visitors as offerings or wishes to be granted. This ancient custom of tying cloth to trees dates back centuries, where rags would be left to rot at sacred places in the hopes the spirits that inhabited the site would cure their sick loved one. This practice can also be found at the Clootie Well on Culloden Moor, which I will be writing more on soon. As an act of gratitude for having made it to the top, and as a great way to reconnect with the practices of my ancestors, I chose to leave a small offering, which I buried at the gnarled roots of the Minister’s Pine. If you would like to partake in this ancient tradition, I would like to stress your offering or rag should be made of natural fibers, such as cotton, linen or hemp. Historic Environment Scotland states, “As with all of the countryside, it is best to be respectful and embrace the landscape for its beauty and environment.”
So please be considerate whenever you venture out into Scotland’s sacred landscape, and most importantly, take your time out in nature and allow yourself to tune in to the changing season. On your walk, if you’re lucky enough, you may even catch a glimpse of a fairy, easily mistaken for a falling leaf.