In the Drawing Room of Dunvegan Castle on Skye is a framed scrap of parchment-coloured silk, ragged, ancient and unbelievably worn. A precious talisman of Clan MacLeod, it is at least 1,500 years old and, if legends are to be believed, it changed the course of history on more than one occasion.
The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan: even its name is enchanting. There are so many stories woven into this precious fabric that they would need an entire book to do them all justice.
This is what we know…
Measuring about 18 inches high by 12 inches across, the Fairy Flag (in Gaelic, am Bratach Sith) is now almost literally a shadow of its former self. Far from being a regular shape, it has only one side which looks anything like an original seam, and even that is cut off for the last five inches or so of its length.
To the ravages of time have been added the well-meaning depredations of many people over the centuries, helping themselves to a little snippet as a good-luck charm. You can still see the outlines made by square pieces being cut out.
Once believed to be either yellow or green, the flag is now a faded ochre with intriguing random dots of very worn red embroidery. In 1799 it was described as having ‘crosses wrought in gold thread’ and some ‘elf spots’ stitched into it. (Nowhere can I find a definition of ‘elf spots’, if in fact one exists.) According to Sir Walter Scott, who saw the flag 15 years later, these spots resembled rowan berries. From reading elsewhere, I believe some historians have attributed them to carefully-disguised mending!
In 1922, experts from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum dated the fabric to somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. If this is correct, it was woven just as the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, the Pictish kings were rising to power in Scotland, and St Columba was beginning to fancy a spot of overseas travel. The silk is believed to originate from Syria or Rhodes; one source suggests that it may have been cut from the robe of an early saint.
And the legends? Well, which one do you want to hear?
This is the first story, and it appears to confirm the banner’s connection with the Holy Land…
A MacLeod clansman set forth on a Crusade and eventually found himself travelling through a mountainous region in the Middle East. A hermit offered him food and shelter, and advised him how to overcome an evil spirit known as ‘The Daughter of Thunder’ who guarded the mountain pass. The clansman set forth and slew the mountain spirit. But before she died, the spirit told him the future of the MacLeods, and gave him her girdle from which to make a banner, and her spear, from which she told him to fashion a staff.
A story that seems to sit half-way between truth and legend relates to the 11th century Norse king Harald Hardrada. Harald had fought in the Byzantine Empire, and he is said to have brought a flag of yellow silk home with him from the Middle East. He called it his ‘Landoda’ or ‘Land Ravager’, and he believed that it was endowed with magical properties.
In 1066, when Harald and his army were engaged in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in northern England, the Landoda failed to save him from being killed by an arrow – but, according to some accounts, the Norwegian men were taken by surprise, before they had properly armed themselves or unfurled the flag. The arrow struck Harald in the throat: it is interesting to note that the English king, Harold Godwinson, would lie dead on a battlefield near Hastings less than a month later, having been struck by an arrow in his eye.
After that, the Fairy Flag was supposedly taken to the Isle of Man by a Norse-Gael nobleman called Godred Crovan, who established himself in 1079 as King of Mann and the Isles. Some sources say that Godred may have been an ancestor of the MacLeods, and this is how the flag was passed down to them… but this has not been proven.
And then there are the fairies…
A Lady of MacLeod was spinning wool when she heard a voice coming from the room where her baby son was asleep. She went to investigate, and found a strange woman in a green kirtle, singing a spellbinding song to the child whom she had enfolded in a silk sheet.
“God save us!” exclaimed Lady MacLeod, and the fairy woman vanished, leaving the baby still wrapped in the cloth.
Amazingly, a ‘fairy lullaby’ in Gaelic has been passed down through generations of MacLeods, and is reported to have been sung to new-born sons of the clan at least within the last 100 years.
A man by the name of ‘The Pearson’ (I’m imagining this may mean the head of the Pearson family or maybe a MacPherson) was making his way home to Skye from the Middle East. He came to a lonely house, and entered to find a child standing next to a cauldron. He asked what the cauldron was for, and the child answered that it was for him! Taking to his heels, he was pursued by a witch who flung balls of thread at him, accompanied by curses. The Pearson caught and sliced each ball with his sword, and escaped unharmed.
Later, at a ford in a river, he had to overcome a female spirit before he could be granted passage. The spirit gave him a box, and inside it were several smaller boxes, the last of which she told him contained a silken flag. But the fairy warned the Pearson of dire consequences if this box was opened within a year and a day.
When he arrived home, the Pearson gave the boxes to Lady MacLeod, and told her his story. Lady MacLeod was so curious that she opened the boxes and took out the flag. Her shock was such that “her next child came not to the world alive, no creature of man or beast was born living that year, and the ground gave no increase.” The Pearson was later found drowned in Loch Eynort.
And this is a full-blown fairy tale in the very best tradition…
The 4th Chief of MacLeod, Iain Ciar, was taking a gentle stroll around his lands when he came across a fairy dwelling. Curious, he went inside and found a fairy princess, a bean sidhe (pronounced ‘ban shee’) with whom he instantly fell in love.
The princess asked her father, the fairy king, for permission to marry the MacLeod Chief. But the king refused, saying that a being from the spirit world could never marry a mortal. The princess was so heartbroken that the king offered a compromise. The princess could stay with the Laird for a year and a day (other versions say 20 years), but at the end of that time she must return to the spirit realm.
After a period of blissful happiness, the time came for the couple to part. The princess had given birth to a baby boy (which gives the ‘year and a day’ theory more credibility) and she hugged him close before bidding farewell to her husband and warning him never to leave the baby unattended, as she dreaded hearing his cries.
The Laird was overcome with sadness, and his family arranged a feast in an attempt to lighten his heart. In the midst of the music and dancing, the MacLeod Chief noticed that the baby’s nursemaid had temporarily left her charge and had come to watch the revelry in the Great Hall. Seized with dread, he ran to check on the child: he heard a lovely voice lifted in song, and saw his fairy wife bending over the cradle, wrapping the baby in a glittering silk shawl. Before he could speak, she had vanished.
I’ve given up trying to count how many variations there are on this story! One of them tells how the princess dropped the silk banner near Dunvegan’s Fairy Bridge as she fled; another, that she gave the flag to her Laird with a promise that, if it were flown in times of peril, it would save the MacLeod clan from doom. There is a tradition that the flag’s magic may only be called upon three times, following which it will be summoned back to the spirit world.
Believe it or not, there are still more stories, but the outcome is always the same – the flag is left to the MacLeods as a potent talisman against evil. It makes me wonder: is the Castle guarding the flag, or is the flag guarding the Castle?
And, intriguingly, the Fairy Flag seems to have lived up to its reputation. In 1580 it was apparently waved in the face of an opposing army and turned the tide of a battle in the MacLeods’ favour; on another occasion, it cured a herd of cattle that were stricken with disease, saving the local community from famine. During the Second World War, the 28th Chief (Dame Flora MacLeod) even offered to brandish the flag from the cliffs of Dover, but this was never put into practice.
In the Dunvegan Castle guide book is a summary of Dame Flora’s own thoughts about the legends. When she inherited the title in 1935 the flag was still kept in a box, and the fabric had become so thin that it could be drawn through her wedding ring. She lends weight to the story that it may have belonged to Harald Hardrada, who treasured it above all his many priceless spoils of war and declared that “With this banner, I can never be defeated in battle.”
I really don’t know which story I love most: I am drawn to the Landoda theory, purely because sometimes fact is even stranger than fiction.
It is easy to see how deeply the Fairy Flag is revered by the MacLeods of Dunvegan. There is a sense that they believe in, or at least respect, its power and presence. After all, this 1,500-year-old relic is sewn into their family history, on a long and unbroken thread. I hope and trust that the Fairy Flag will weave its spell for many generations to come.
There are no freely available images of the Fairy Flag, and no photography is permitted within Dunvegan Castle so we did not take any pictures on our visit. You can view the flag here on the Dunvegan Castle website.
You can read more about Dunvegan Castle in this feature on The Hazel Tree.
- Dunvegan Castle website
- Dunvegan Castle guide book
- “A Song in Thy Praise”
- Faery Folklorist
If you are inspired to read all the legends attached to the Fairy Flag, you can order a copy of the Dunvegan Castle guide book via their website, www.dunvegancastle.com.
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf unless otherwise stated.