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A photo of the Fairy Bridge on the Isle of Man, surrounded by bluebells.
The Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man. Photo credit: Wikicommons

Song source: The Travelling Fairies

Moonrakers' Jon Bennett discusses the origins of the Manx traditional lullaby and fairy lore that formed the basis of his song, 'The Travelling Fairies'.

The Isle of Man is the smallest of the surviving ‘Celtic’ nations, and despite waves of occupying rulers over the centuries has managed to maintain a distinctive cultural identity and language. Due in part to its geographical isolation, the island has faced relatively little major warfare or social upheaval; this in part explains why its ancient traditions have survived longer than most places in northern Europe. 

In his 1731 book, A Description of the Isle of Man, the ethnographer George Waldron tells us of an enduring belief that in pre-Christian times, the island was inhabited by fairies. A blue mist created by a perpetually stoked fire hung over the island, making it invisible to passing ships. Although later the island was to be inhabited by humans, the fairies would continue to live in the hidden places. Indeed, it was very common for people to leave food for the fairies on their hearth at night. Sir Walter Scott stated that the Isle of Man was, “a peculiar depository of the fairy traditions”. 

The locals refer to the fairies as “Little Fellas”, “Themselves”, “The Good Folk” or “The Natives”. They are regarded with respect, despite their mischievous nature. When walking from Douglas to Castletown you cross the ‘Fairy Bridge’ and it is in your best interest to say hello to the Mooiney Veggey (proper name for the Little People) as there are many cautionary tales about what happens if you neglect to do so. I found a few verses of a traditional Manx lullaby in the library at Halsway Manor in Somerset and set these to music in ‘The Travelling Fairies’, a track on the latest Moonrakers album Ebb & Flow.

Interestingly, the lullaby suggests that the Little People can be subdued by various birds to ensure the peaceful sleep of the child. As in all enduring fairy lore, there are good fairies and bad. The traditional verses here may well refer to the “buggane”, or evil fairy, and the tales about how the Manx King would implore Crottag the curlew, Lhondhoo the blackbird, Drean the wren, and Foillan the seagull to chase away the buggane. The lullaby is not that specific, though, and it raises more questions than answers about its intended meaning. 

Our song mentions Glen Rushen, which was reputedly the first area of the island occupied by humans when the blue mist temporarily lifted some 2,000 years ago. It also mentions, “the head of the Spaniard”, referring to Spanish Head on the southwest coast where, according to legend, survivors of a Spanish wreck took refuge 400 years ago. 

A final word about the music. I make no claim to reflect particular characteristics of Manx music; this was purely a compositional exercise around the given words. I was, however, wanting to emulate the modal nature of traditional music in general. You might note that the seagull-sounding effects at the beginning are entirely created by our cellist, Jacqui Johnson. 

If you’re interested in the music of Moonrakers, we have five albums, tour regularly and our latest 2022 project is a show exploring the links between Ralph Vaughan Williams’s compositions and his collected folk songs. For more information, go to www.moonrakers.net