In preparation for a field trip, I was browsing through the Statistical Accounts of Scotland to learn about some of the towns I would be passing through. On the whole, statistical accounts do not make the most exciting reading material. They’re mostly overviews of the state of each place in terms of things like population, education, local industries, public health, and climate. I soon gave up hope of finding any juicy folklore. But then I came across a small former fisher town on the Moray Coast. The old account was very short, but it included a story about a nearby stone marking the spot where a chief had been slain during an argument over a round of cheese. By far the most drama I had yet come across, so I was instantly invested and then had to look at the later account to see if the mysterious cheese fight was mentioned further. It was, and with a whole lot more besides…
Welcome to 18th century Ardersier, where the beaches are either flat and sandy or overgrown with ridges of heather. If you can clearly see the Ross-shire hills in the morning, rain will come later in the day. If they are hazy, it will remain dry. In winter, you can hear the cries of visiting seabirds, and there is a small loch where white water lilies grown in such abundance that you can barely see the surface of the water.
The stories of the elderly are heard, and savoured. Old words are always true, when the young are too young to know different. Maybe this is why the belief in faeries remains strong beyond credence. They are said to revel in the moonlight around a nearby knoll, and everyone knows that a sickly child is a changeling. Frayed, desperate parents, trying anything to get back their loves and their lives…
TRIGGER WARNING: Post-natal depression and child death
My love would not have loved this. It was the fae’s child, not hers. Her gentle smile would not have graced her lips if she had looked upon it, I am sure. Those lips which tasted of all the blood in the room when I last touched them. After her screams ceased, and the screams of this creature began. Screaming, screaming. The midwife took it away, and I held her, who had left me for this.
It screamed. Every day, and every night. I tried everything a father could. I bathed it, and kept it warm. I soaked rags in milk for it to suck on, and nestled it in my arms as I stumbled through delirious lullabies. Nothing soothed it. It refused sleep, and denied me the same. She wouldn’t have wanted to hold it, either. Nasty, writhing thing. Not a child, but a demon.
It was the midwife who said it first.
The word slithered through the village, house to house. Changeling, changeling, changeling.
“Oh, aye,” said my neighbours. They heard its screams as well as I did, in the night, keeping their own children awake.
I took it to the healer. She rubbed it with salves, and burned St John’s Wort. It screamed more. Back home, it was sick. Then it ate everything, so I stopped feeding it. All the milk in the village turned sour overnight. I laid mistletoe and iron shears in the cradle. It shrank away from them, glaring at me between unearthly shrieks, with brown eyes that were like her’s but also not. They held no warmth, and reflected none of the hearth’s soft light. Slitted, weepy things, all dark and empty.
Weeks passed. A cow died. A crop spoiled. It rained. Changeling, changeling.
When my neighbour’s daughter fell ill, a knock came at my door.
“Take it. You know where. Take it now, before anything happens to my Elspeth.” Other faces peered out of doorways, nodding and murmuring in agreement. “The knoll, only way…” I shut my door.
It was a bright autumn twilight. No clouds, just an endless, sharp sky, pale blue fringed with red and orange. A twilight before a frost, when a waning moon would rise, and ice and silver would leach all life from the countryside. A night to carry away what was no longer desired.
I swaddled it in a blanket and left the house. The faces watched me go. Some cast their eyes down as I passed, others bore into me to make sure that I went. I felt them on my back long after I was beyond their sight.
To the knoll. Where the fae gathered and revelled in the moonlight. Where the chime of bells could be heard, and our cattle refused to graze. Small and unassuming, but a portal to Elfhame if ever there was one. Everyone knew it, and pretended they didn’t.
As I crouched and laid it on the grass, I could almost feel their unseen eyes watching me. They were in the stirring breeze, tugging at the blanket as I settled it around the creature. I paused for a moment, gazing at it, wondering. Thoughts drifting, as they do when you have not slept for so long, and you cannot tell right from wrong. Holding her. Holding her body. Tears. My tears, falling on its skin. Faces, on thresholds. Only way. The fae were watching. They must want it back. It was their fault, not mine.
I left it there. I left it screaming. I walked home. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would hold my child. Her child. A real child. I slept.
In the morning, I buried a frosted corpse.
‘Not Mine’ is based on events recorded in Ardersier’s 1845 Statistical Account. There was a father with a sick child, which he and his neighbours believed to be a changeling. To rectify this, he took them to Tom Eanraic (Henry’s Knoll), a local hill said to be where faeries gathered, and left them there overnight. It was believed that when he returned in the morning, he would find the faeries would have reclaimed the changeling and returned his real child. However, in actuality he returned to find the child had perished. The other characters and details given here are my own creation, speculating about how this tragic situation may have unfolded. ‘Not Mine’ was also published in Ex Libris, the University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing Society Anthology 2019.