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In Search of the Tooth of the Fairy Dog February 17, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

black dog

Fairy dogs are the Scottish and above all the Hebridean equivalent of the East Anglian shuck: black or white or green (!) hounds that appear in the night and that bring with them portents. Of course, the fairy dog is an intangible creature, probably to be looked for in the subconscious rather than in the hedgerows and ditches. But what about fairy dog teeth that were absolutely tangible? Consider this (slightly edited) newspaper report from 1899 and the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway is on Lewis.

Kate MacCaskill or Campbell, a middle-aged woman, residing at Holm village, near Stornoway, was charged at Stornoway before Sheriff Campbell with committing a breach of the peace on 31st May last. Mrs. Mackay [the complainant], who gave her evidence in Gaelic, stated that on the occasion in question Mrs. MacCaskill had said to her that if she (Mrs. MacCaskill) had had the tooth she would use the peculiar properties possessed by said tooth to cause witness’s immediate destruction. Mrs. MacCaskill had also remarked that had she the tooth she would have put it down witness’s chimney, the result of which would be that witness’s house would go on fire. The Sheriff asked witness various questions bearing on the subject. From her answers it appears that the tooth possessed certain curative properties, and that water in which it had been dipped could be used with most powerful healing effect on sick men or animals. Even the mere holding of the tooth produced this curing effect. His Lordship asked witness if the tooth was that of an animal. Witness replied that it was a fairy dog’s tooth. At any rate that was the name it got. She did not know where the tooth was now. It was considered a lucky possession. The Sheriff asked witness if the tooth was considered lucky how could it put her house on fire? Witness admitted she did not think it could do that. In further answer Mrs. Mackay could not tell if the person who owned the tooth made money out of it or went about showing it to people. She (witness) had it in her hand ten years ago, and paid one shilling for this. The tooth was said to have come down from time immemorial. Alexander Stewart, a crofter residing at Holm, had seen the tooth in Melbost, but could not say where it was now. That was thirty years ago, when he saw his mother showing it to another woman. The Sheriff asked witness what the tooth was like. Witness said it was larger than a man’s tooth, one end of it red, and the other commencing to decay. It went by the name of ‘Fairy Dog’s Tooth’.

We’ll get on with the story in a moment. But what was the ‘tooth’? A real dog’s tooth? A primate’s tooth? We lack details. Anyway, back to the Wickerman neighbourhood.

Mrs. Stewart, from the same township, heard Mrs. MacCaskill say that she wished the tooth was in ‘such and such’ a place. Witness would not say where. Mrs. MacCaskill also said that if she possessed the tooth, she would put it down the chimney of Mrs. Mackay’s house, and thereby set said house on fire. Witness had seen the tooth thirty-four years ago, when an ‘old wife’ in the Holm had it. Witness had paid one shilling for holding the tooth. She had carried it from Melbost to Bayble to cure some cattle that were sick, and the cattle were made to drink water in which the tooth was dipped. It cured them. Water in which the tooth had been dipped would cure sick men or animals. The tooth was supposed to work cures better and cheaper than a doctor, and was considered by many people to be doing great good. Mrs. MacCaskill gave evidence on her own behalf, and admitted that there had been some ‘words’, but nothing that amounted to breach of the peace. Mrs. Mackay had been twitting her about the tooth, and witness thought it was time to say something on her own behalf. She did say to Mrs. Mackay that if she had the tooth, she (Mrs. Mackay) would be the first person that she would kill with it. She said no more than that. Witness denied saying anything about sending the tooth down Mrs. Mackay’s chimney. She did not have the tooth, and could not say where it was now. The tooth cured disorders. It was said witness’s great-grandfather was the first to have it. The Sheriff: How did he get it? Witness answered that one late night, as tradition said, when her great-grandfather was coming home from Stornoway something met him and gave him this tooth, so the report ran. The Sheriff inquired whether her great-grandfather had any drink that night. Witness could not tell. She could not tell if it was a fairy that met her great-grandfather on the night in question. The Sheriff said the case seemed to him to be a neighbours’ squabble, with two parties concerned, one a Mackay party and the other a Campbell party, or he would say the one a fairy-dog and the other an anti-fairy-dog party. Another feature appeared to be that because Mrs. Mackay had migrated to Holm from the other side of the island some thirteen years ago, this select and exclusive community in Holm resisted the intrusion. He found the charge not proven, but severely admonished the accused for her abusive and most offensive language. He concluded with a few words of advice as to the manner in which the people of the township should conduct themselves towards one another.

Don’t you just get the sense that if this had happened in 1830s someone would have been burnt and the local JPs would have pretended not to notice? Anyway, forget sociology, Beach needs to know more about the fairy tooth. The only other good reference he has found is this one.

From time to time the grandfather of a friend of mine in Lewis used to observe that the supply of potatoes in his barn was diminishing gradually by some unknown agency. In the hope of detecting the thief, the old man concealed himself in the barn many a time. Yet, never a soul approached, although the potatoes continued to disappear. One morning he noticed something odd sticking out of a potato. What was this but a faery-dog tooth? A much coveted charm. The tooth of the faery dog, they say has occult properties. For example, when placed in drinking water, it can heal ailing cattle. It also has the power of restoring to milk the substance extracted from it by witches and evil spirits. The faery-dog is regarded as a precious heirloom. As such, it is being handed down through my friend’s family. When last I heard of it, the rightful heir in Canada had it in his cherished possession.

Would any toothed animal eat raw potatoes? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And it goes without saying, if the most recent heir to the fairy tooth should stumble upon this post please get in touch! We want a photograph!