The tale of the Rev. Robert Kirk and his Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Faeries is very peculiar. When read carefully, the text of his 1691 manuscript describing the faeries of Aberfoyle, Scotland gives many clues as to the reality of what he calls the Subterraneans, and how people were able to perceive them and interact with them.
Much of the discussion in his text centers around people with the ‘second sight’, An Dà Shealladh in Gaelic, and their ability to sense the faerie world, which was apparently occupying the same space as consensus reality, but would only interact with it under special circumstances.
August Malmström – Dancing Faeries (1866) ( Public Domain )
So, who was Robert Kirk, why was he writing about supernatural races on earth at the end of the 17th century, and what happened to him?
The Strange Fate of Robert Kirk
Kirk was the church minister at Aberfoyle in the southern Highlands of Scotland from 1685 to his death at age 48 in 1692. He was also (apparently) the seventh son of a seventh son — a sure sign that he should be carrying the requisite clairvoyance in his genetic makeup, though the text of the manuscript retains an ambiguity as to whether Kirk considered himself to have the second sight, or whether all his information came from other sources.
A year after penning The Secret Commonwealth , his body was found on the Faerie Knowe (Doon Hill) at Aberfoyle, a hill he frequented often in life, perhaps to consort with the faeries whose customs he describes in the book. His will is dated a day before his death, and the folklorist, himself immediately became the subject of folklore , as the rumor spread that he’d been abducted by the faeries for giving away too many of their secrets in his manuscript.
Kirk was minister at Balquhidder church until 1685. ( Public Domain )
The plot thickens when we discover that not only did his grave not contain his body but that there is a tradition of him appearing in ghostly form to a friend at the christening of his (Kirk’s) posthumous child, with a plea to escape faerieland, where he was apparently being held captive. The stunned friend failed to throw a dirk (an iron knife) over the spectral Kirk as pre-planned, dooming the reverend to remain with the faeries, who had taken him into the Faerie Knowe and who left a stock or doubleman as his fake body.
Robert Kirk’s gravestone at Aberfoyle, Scotland (Via author)
The Secret Commonwealth
But the mysterious circumstances of Kirk’s demise pale next to what he had been writing about in The Secret Commonwealth . In his manuscript (not published until 1815) he lays out who the faeries were and who could see them, crystallizing what would appear to be a coherent (and matter of fact) belief in the faeries in this part of the Scottish Highlands in the 17th century. The work certainly gives the impression of an educated man (in 1682 he published the first metrical translation of the Psalms into Gaelic) simply describing a supernatural race of beings, much in the way as he might have described a foreign civilization.
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, fairies of Shakespeare ( Public Domain )
Intriguingly, Kirk is less interested in telling folktales than in giving an overview of what these creatures are and how they live. In this, his manuscript is unique and unusual. He calls them Subterraneans and tells us that they were halfway between humans and angels.
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Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide variety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. His first book is Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun .
Top Image: Fairy realm ( Public Domain ) and abstract quantum physics ( Public Domain ); Deriv.
By Neil Rushton