The Scottish Gaelic term for fairy, but also whatever is fairy-like, unearthly, not of this world. They come and go with noiseless step, and their thefts or abductions are done silently and unawares to men. Their presence is also noticed when items have mysteriously disappeared or when family member or cattle have suddenly died. When driven away, they do so noiselessly and they seem to glide rather than walk. Generally their presence is indicated at most by the cloud of dust raised by the eddy wind, or by some curious natural phenomena, or by the sound of their musical instruments, songs, or speech.
Their size is variously described as being small enough to creep through key-holes; resembling mankind; or being of gigantic size. They are generally believed to be a small race, the men about four feet in height and the women the size of a little girl. The women are typically dressed in green while the men wear clothes of any color. In Skye, the coats of the women are shaggy or ruffled and their caps curiously fitted or wrinkled. The men are frequently called daoine beaga ruadh, "little red men," from their clothes having the appearance of being dyed with the lichen called crotal.
A female fairy is called sìtheag or ban-sìthe and a male fairy bodach-sìthe. The elfin youth is called gille sìth. Other words for fairy are sìthiche and sìtheanach (both masculine). The term sìthbheire is mostly applied to changelings. A fairy godmother is called muime-sìthe. They are also called sluagh, "folk, a multitude," sluagh eutrom, "light folk," and daoine beaga, "little men," from the number and small size ascribed to the elves. Another term is daoine còire, "kindly folk," from a desire to give no unnecessary offence.
Typically some personal defect is ascribed to the sìth. In Mull and the neighborhood they are said to have only one nostril, the other being imperforate (an leth choinlein aca druid-te).
Fairies have a reputation for stealing, but they do not take anything away bodily, they only take what is called its toradh (fruit, produce, issue, yield). Only the outward appearance is left, but the reality is gone. When a cow is elf-taken, it appears to the owner that the cow has been suddenly stricken by some mysterious disease (chaidh am beathach ud a ghonadh): the cow itself is gone and only its semblance remains, possibly animated by a fairy who receives all the attentions paid to the sick cow, but gives nothing in return. Fairies only take away what men deserve to lose. Most frequently they abducted women, not yet risen from childbirth, and their babies. It was said that sìth women were unable to suckle their own children and therefore desired a human wet-nurse. Several precautions were taken to prevent the abduction, such as driving iron nails into the front board of the bed, placing an old shoe in the fire, sprinkling the door posts with maistir (stale urine), etc. After three days, the midwife left a small oatmeal cake with a hole in it in front of the bed. The father's shirt, wrapped around the newborn, was also considered to be a preservative. Should the fairies succeed in their attempts, they left instead of the mother, and bearing her semblance, a stock of wood (stoc maide), and in place of the infant an old mannikin of their own race. See changeling.
The dwelling of the fairies, a fairy mound, is called sìthean. It is recognized by the particularly green appearance and rounded form. Brugh denotes the dwelling viewed as it were from the inside, but is often used interchangeably with sìthean.
Breac sìth, "elfin pox," hives, are spots that appear on the skin in certain diseases. They are not ascribed to the fairies, but are called sìth because they appear and disappear "silently" without obvious cause. The cuckoo is called an eun sìth, a fairy bird, because it was said that its winter dwelling was underground. St. Elmo's fire is called teine-sìth.
The world itself means "peace," or "hill."
- Campbell, J.G. (1900). Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Glascow: James MacLehose and Sons, p. 4 ff.
This article incorporates text from Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900) by John Campbell, which is in the public domain.