The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan Castle is one of the most enigmatic of all the relics found in historic British homes believed to have a supernatural or legendary origin. However, it is not alone – the castle also possesses a beautiful cup which legend claims once belonged to the fairies.
Dunvegan Castle, on the Isle of Skye, is the ancestral home of the Chiefs of the Clan Macleod. Aside from its important place in Scottish history, its magnificent gothic architecture and its stunning location towering over Loch Dunvegan, the castle is notable for possessing not one but two fairy artefacts.
There are several old homes in the British Isles associated with beautiful objects believed to be former possessions of the fairies (the Luck of Edenhall being a famous example) but I’m fairly sure that Dunvegan Castle is the only one to have two.
The best known is the Fairy Flag. This is a fragment of much frayed and faded yellow silk with red spots and a century or so ago before they faded out of existence, red crosses. Its origin is something of a mystery but is thought to have been brought back from the Middle East by a Crusading knight. However, studies suggest it is even older than that, perhaps dating back as far as the 4th century.
This surely is exciting enough, but folklore insists that the flag is of fairy origin and that it was imbued with magical powers. There are several legends to account for its presence in Castle Dunvegan. One, of common form, is that an ancestor of the Macleods married a fairy woman but they had to part when she gave birth to their first son. She wrapped the child in the flag and returned to fairyland. Another has it that a fairy woman entered the castle of her own volition and wrapped it round the infant heir of the Macleods to magically protect him from harm. It is said that for centuries afterwards the flag was used in the bed-clothes of all future heirs (which might explain its tattered condition). The final story is that the Crusading MacLeod met a fairy woman in the Holy Land and she gave him the flag. This sounds like legend trying to fit with historical fact but, who knows, maybe it’s the truth!
The Fairy Flag has performed many miracles, beyond that of quiet protection. On two occasions, according to the legend, unfurling it has resulted in the magical creation of hordes of armed men to swell the ranks of the Macleods on two occasions when they were threatened by rival clans (there is a ban on the flag being used a third time for this purpose – the result would be calamity or merely the return of the flag to the otherworldly realm from which it came).
It is also credited with having cured members of the Macleod family of a variety of illnesses as well as the clan’s cattle of a plague, to boost fertility and also to attract herring into the loch.
The other fairy artefact held at the castle is the Dunvegan Cup. This is a communal or ceremonial beaker dating from the 15th century. It is made of wood richly ornamented with silver filigree, silver gilt and niello, a black alloy popular in the Dark and Middle Ages. It’s a strange shape, at least to modern eyes, but very beautiful and it’s no wonder legend built up around it.
The legend of the Dunvegan Cup is that it came into the possession of a member of the Macleod family who happened to notice a troop of fairies gambolling outside a ruined broch (Pictish stone tower) called Dun Osdale. They invited him in and offered him a drink from an elaborate vessel. Knowing that tasting food and drink put you in their power, the young man only pretended to drink, then he made his escape, carrying the cup away with him.
The offended fairies put a curse on the cup so that not only its new owner but absolutely everyone else would covet it. The young man was murdered by one of his friends for its possession. The horrified Chief of the Macleods took charge of the cup and, having caught and hanged the murdered, kept it safely out of harm’s way in Dunvegan Castle (where, of course, he could enjoy it!).
Today the Fairy Flag and the Dunvegan Cup can still be seen at Dunvegan Castle. The picture shows another relic of the clan, Sir Rory Mor’s Horn, an old drinking horn. You can also see at the castle the Macrimmon Pipes: the Macrimmon family has provided bagpipers to the Clan Macleod for thirteen generations. Doctor Who fans will recall young Jamie Macrimmon, while in a delirious state on The Moonbase, mistaking a Cyberman for ‘The Piper’, his clan ghost come to claim his soul.
Article © Richard Holland 2012