Originally Published November 2014
The Fairy Minister
Reverend Robert Kirk (1644 – 1692) was born the seventh son of Rev. James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle in central Scotland. Robert Kirk studied theology at St Andrews and received his master’s degree at Edinburgh in 1661. Kirk became minister of Balquhidder in 1664, and eventually, like his father, became minister of Aberfoyle. But he is best known as the author of a treatise entitled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, which described fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts, as well as the “second sight”, as described by the people of the Scottish Highlands.
Of course, the fact that he was a seventh son has been used to explain his interest and perhaps some special access to knowledge of the fairy folk and related topics. Lore has it that a seventh son may have certain supernatural gifts including second sight, or even the power to heal certain illnesses and afflictions. Kirk himself wrote in The Secret Commonwealth the theory that there was “some secret virtue in the womb of the parent, which increaseth until the seventh son be borne, and decreaseth by the same degree afterwards.“
But it was the tale surrounding Robert Kirk’s death which recently caught my eye. His successor, the Rev. Dr. Grahame, recounts that as Rev. Kirk was “walking on a dun-shi, or fairy-hill, in his neighbourhood, he sunk down in a swoon, which was taken for death” A funeral was held and a headstone erected in the local cemetery, but questions remained surrounding the location of his death, and tales arose saying that his still living body had been taken away by fairies. Some eighty years later, Sir Walter Scott wrote
“the unenlightened took (it) for death (but) the more understanding knew it to be a swoon produced by the supernatural influence of the people whose precincts he had violated.”
After spending so much time writing his treatise on the fey and their kin it was suggested that they had taken their revenge for revealing their secrets by abducting him as he walked over a hill where they dwelt. Sir Walter Scott continues the story:
After the ceremony of a seeming funeral, the form of the Reverend Robert Kirke appeared to a relation, and commanded him to go to the Grahame of Duchray, ancestor of the present General Graham Stirling. ‘Say to Duchray, who is my cousin, as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairy Land; and only one chance remains for my liberation…[At the upcoming baptism of my child,] I will appear in the room, when if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he hold in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost for ever.
The legend goes on to say that when Robert Kirk’s apparition appeared Duchray was too started to throw the knife in time to release him, and Scott explained “it is to be feared that Mr. Kirke still (remains trapped in) the Elfin state.“
Robert Kirk’s work was eventually discovered and finally published in 1815. In an 1893 reprint Andrew Lang gave it the current title and seems to have given Kirk the nickname of “The Fairy Minister” and included a poem (below) explaining how Kirk became “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen” The Secret Commonwealth contributed greatly to the revival in fairy culture that grew alongside the spiritualism movement of the 19th and early 20th century. The Secret Commonwealth is available as a free Ebook download through Google books.
People of Peace! A peaceful man,
Well worthy of your love was he,
Who, while the roaring Garry ran
Red with the life-blood of Dundee,
While coats were turning, crowns were falling,
Wandered along his valley still,
And heard your mystic voices calling
From fairy knowe and haunted hill.
He heard, he saw, he knew too well
The secrets of your fairy clan;
You stole him from the haunted dell,
Who never more was seen of man.
Now far from heaven, and safe from hell,
Unknown of earth, he wanders free.
Would that he might return and tell
Of his mysterious company!
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 tail.
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.