Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth

April 8, 2013

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
Robert Kirk
Introduction by Andrew Lang
(Dover, 2008) [1692]
94 p.

Several years ago I passed a few happy weeks walking the Scottish Highlands. I was enchanted by the soft, green mountains, the shrouding mists, the mysterious ruins, and the numerous cattle. (This last enchantment was apparently mutual.) My motives in undertaking this walk were various, but I had hoped, somewhere deep down, that in the course of my journey I would catch a glimpse of faerie, that realm of mystery inhabited by airy creatures whose character is known to us only through the stories of softly-lit encounters passed down by our ancestors. I did not, in the end, see anything answering the description, or, if I did, I failed to mark it. This book reminds me of what I missed, and reassures me, to some extent, that it may have been for the best.

Robert Kirk was a Scottish minister who had a special interest in fairies and allied creatures, and who, perceiving that the world was becoming a place less hospitable to them, and noting the doubts raised in certain quarters about their nature and very existence, set out to collect and arrange the lore about these creatures for the instruction and enrichment of all. He wrote his book in the last decade of the seventeenth century, though it was not widely read until 1815 when, at the behest of Sir Walter Scott, it was first published.

It is a fascinating work. Kirk is sober and meticulous, and he presents a judicious mixture of anthropological speculation and anecdote. We learn that fairies are normally subterranean, dwelling in the fairy hills common in the Highland landscape, and — what I did not realize — that they are large creatures, comparable in size to you and me. They speak the language and adopt the fashions of human societies, and can sometimes be mistaken for humans. Yet they are, in themselves, airy and insubstantial, impossible to wound with a sword or spear, and visible best, if at all, at twilight. They are aristocratic in government, and sullen in temperament. They are impious, fleeing, for instance, at the mention of Christ, and “ever readiest to go on hurtful errands”. It is for these reasons that I was perhaps foolish to seek them out.

The faculty of seeing fairies is not granted to all; Kirk speculates in a long letter to Sir Robert Boyle that an especially keen sense of sight may be needed, or perhaps the fairies themselves can regulate their appearances to grosser mortals. In any case the faculty is one that is given, and taken away, not cultivated by any art. Those so gifted with “the second sight” reported that it was sometimes accompanied by other capacities, such as foreknowledge of death, and Kirk enumerates many examples. It is reported that seers lose their gift when they leave their native land.

Our instinct in view of such matters is disbelief. We have no fairies, and, perhaps more to the point, we will have no fairies. Maybe we are simply weary, or maybe we fondly (though falsely) imagine that science, that mighty wind, has blown away the veil of mystery and exposed the nothing behind it. In the end we have our prejudices. Even so, Kirk may yet be of value to us, for he teaches us how thoroughly our experience is mediated through our assumptions, which is surely a healthy thing for a culture professing an allegiance to empiricism.

As for Reverend Kirk, we are told that he was himself such a friend of faerie that — well, if you want to know what became of him, let me point you to David Bentley Hart’s delightful essay on the subject. If you took the time to read what I have written here, you owe it to yourself to read what what he has written there, for it is really immeasurably better.


Andrew Lang, the noted folklorist who contributed the introduction to this edition of The Secret Commonwealth, wrote this short poem in honour of Kirk:

For we have tired the Folk of Peace;
No more they tax our corn and oil;
Their dances on the moorland cease,
The Brownie stints his wonted toil.
No more shall any shepherd meet
The ladies of the fairy clan,
Nor are their deathly kisses sweet
On lips of any earthly man.
And half I envy him who now,
Clothed in her Court’s enchanted green,
By moonlit loch or mountain’s brow
Is Chaplain to the Fairy Queen.

7 Responses to “Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth”

  1. Grumpy Ex Pat Says:

    very enjoyable piece

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Grumpy.

  3. Janet Says:

    I seem to have missed this. I will have to come back and read it.


  4. Janet Says:

    Thanks, Craig. I’m glad you mentioned this again, or I would have missed it. You are right to be glad that you escaped mischance on your trip. I think the common notion of fairies is about as accurate as our portrayal of angels.

    I’m trying to remember if we ever discussed Jonathan Norrell and Dr. Strange. Have you read that?

    You might enjoy A Mirror of Shalott, too:


  5. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that recommendation, Janet. It looks like an interesting book.

    I have read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I really enjoyed it. In fact, I probably wrote something about it at the time. Oh yes, here it is. I liked it.

  6. Janet Says:

    Argh. Disabuses anyone of the notion . . .


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