The fairy dwellings of Iona: what do the place-names tell us?

John McCormick writing in The Oban Times 15 June 1889 (p. 3) commented that in the earlier half of that century:

superstition had a firm hold of the Ionians, who construed every casual incident to something supernatural, and who imagined that the disembodied spirits of the inhabitants floated about in the air. Many are the curious stories of ghosts and fairies seen at dead of night by those silent night-watchers […] Such chimerical stories were well credited in the days when superstition reigned supreme.

To what extent are these stories still visible in the landscape? Last year we posted two blogs, both discussing Sìthean Mòr ‘(The) large (fairy) hill’ (Grid Reference: NM270235), a hill located roughly in the centre of Iona (you can find these blogs here and here). This hill is notable for the wealth of place-lore associated with it, much of which relates to St Columba. However, there are also multiple stories which involve fairies. Although this blog only scratches the surface of traditions dealing with fairies and the Otherworld in Iona, it will revisit Sìthean Mòr and other Iona place-names in an attempt to contextualise fairy lore on the island.[1] But what role do fairies have in place-name studies? This is not the place for a full discussion of the meaning of relevant terms including ‘fairies’ and ‘sìtheanaich’ in the Gaelic world, but a couple of points are worth mentioning. In folklore and place-lore they are typically involved in the ill fortune of those who encounter them:

the fairies were demonised as channels of inexplicable ill fortune. They were imputed with the abduction of mothers, babies and children who died or failed to thrive, and of being the succubae of men seduced by unsuitable lovers. Their shot, with its near-invisible entry wound, was the cause of unexplained illness or lack of productivity in cattle (Bateman 2020, p. 848).[2]

Place-lore referring to fairies in this fashion is very common across Scotland, not least on Iona. It therefore useful to think about this a bit more in the context of place-names.

The fairy stories associated with Sìthean Mòr typically follow the established pattern noted above where various misfortunes befall people who find themselves in proximity of the hill. One story recorded by Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson (1923, p. 386) describes how two young men who were fishing found a fairy mound[3] open and ‘both went in and joined the fairies in their dance’. One of the men avoids being trapped inside the mound by using a fish-hook made of iron as protection[4] and is thus able to escape. His companion is less fortunate and a year later he is still dancing inside the fairy mound, but is rescued by his friend. As previously discussed, it is likely that the element sìthean, with its connotations of referring to a fairy hill, has at least partially prompted such stories becoming attached to the hill.

This is not the only reference to fairy dwellings on Iona. As noted by Mairi MacArthur (1989, p. 115) there are also stories which take place at Dùn Ì and Calva in which a hunchback is able to get rid of his hump with the aid of the fairies. One of these stories is recorded by Gregor Ian Smith (1953, pp. 54-9):

In the isle of Iona there lived a young man by the name of Fachie, who was kind, good-natured and helpful at all times […] Yet Fachie was unhappy, with a secret sorrow always at his heart, for his body was bent and misshapen because of a great ugly hump that had grown upon his back […] When the black mood was on him, Fachie would shun his fellows and seek out the loneliest parts of the island. Sometimes he walked by the sea, by the white sands, or stayed to watch the breakers curling under the towering cliffs. But more often he climbed to the summit of Dun-I […] as he lingered under the stars with his ear close to the green turf, he heard sounds that the wind could not make. It was a small singing voice that was making a song out of two words–‘Monday–Tuesday–Monday–Tuesday’.

The story goes on to tell of how Fachie provides assistance to the fairy singing the song by completing it for him, singing the missing word ‘Wednesday’. He is rewarded by the fairies who remove his hump.[5] This story is located at the side of Dùn Ì, but interestingly, we may note that some of these stories are geographically ambivalent. For example, John Gregorson Campbell (1900, pp. 62-3) records a version of the story of the young fishermen mentioned above, but he does not actually give the name or location of the hill. He simply states that ‘two young men in Iona were coming in the evening from fishing on the rocks. On their way, when passing, they found the shï-en of that island open, and entered.’ We might assume that this does indeed refer to Sìthean Mòr since this is the most well-known sìthean on the island, but perhaps we should not dismiss the possibility that it refers to one of the other sites. This seems to indicate one of two things: 1. That ‘the shï-en [sìthean] of that island’ was a well-established enough description not to warrant further elaboration, or 2. That the specific location was not important to the story. At any rate, these accounts suggest a certain flexibility and a capacity for these stories to be used as an anchoring motif which could be attached to multiple sites and place-names as the storyteller found suitable. This is not surprising in itself, and many other instances of this story, and other migratory tales, can be found across Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere.[6] Nevertheless, the geographical proximity of similar stories attached to different sites on a relatively small island like Iona is worth noting.

Druim Dhùghaill

View from Druim Dhùghaill towards the south.

Another story explains the name Druim Dhùghaill ‘Dugald’s Ridge’ (Grid Reference: NM273223) which refers to a ridge on the south-east coastline of the island. Donald MacFarlane described the origins of the name in 1963:

A young man had a fairy sweetheart and a smith made him a steel arrow so that he could not be harmed while carrying it in his clothes. But he was to go to a wedding and changed out of his usual clothes. He went to hunt rabbits on the ridge till the wedding began but he never returned. His body was found next day. She had killed him. The place where he was found was named after him, Druim Dhùghaill (trans. Mairi MacArthur 1990. The original recording in Gaelic has been digitised by Tobar an Dualchais ID17790).[7]

It is worth noting that the surviving record of place-lore associated with this site is markedly different from that already discussed in relation to Sìthean Mòr. Importantly, it does not appear to have been recorded by any of the antiquarian visitors of the 18th and 19th centuries. One explanation for this might be the fact that unlike Sìthean Mòr it is not located along any of the typical tourist paths, although it is visible from the sea. On the other hand, the story does not appear to be well-attested in local sources either. Donald MacFarlane, from the Ross of Mull, states that he heard the story ‘from his father, Hector, who heard it from the old folk in Iona as a boy. (Donald was born 1892.)’ (MacArthur 1989, p. 116). Despite the implication that the tradition is of relatively considerable age, the story involving fairies does not appear to have survived in other sources.

One way of thinking about this story is that it might have been used to explain actual events that happened. As Mairi MacArthur (pers.comm.) points out, if a young man died suddenly without apparent reason (for example from a heart attack), especially while out in the landscape, the cause might have been attributed to the misdeeds of fairies. Alternatively, the place-name may have pre-dated the tradition and the story was later attached to an earlier name when the original motivation for coining that name (and perhaps the person in question) had been forgotten. Considering the other version of the story (see footnote 7), the former may be more likely and we could easily envisage a situation where the actual death of a man named Dùghall was the basis for both the story and the place-name.

Dùn Bhuirg

View of Dùn Bhuirg.

Despite the wealth of fairy lore associated with Iona place-names, it is also worth thinking a bit about what is not there. For the second half of this blog I would like to look at Dùn Bhuirg (Grid Reference: NM264246) and place it in the context of other Dùn Bhuirg(h)s in western Scotland. On Iona, the name refers to the second highest elevation (51 m) on the island, located on near the western coastline north of the Machair. An Iron Age hillfort is located on its summit.[8] The name likely contains an existing Old Norse name *Borg with an element generally used to denote a ‘fort, fortification, castle’, but which also has a broader meaning: ‘small dome-shaped hill’ (Cl.-Vig.). In Scotland, it is often used to refer to earlier Iron Age structures such as brochs (e.g. see Watson 1913, p. 3).[9] This earlier name was later incorporated into multiple Gaelic place-names, including Dùn Bhuirg and Cùl Bhuirg (Grid Reference: NM270240), the latter referring to a farm located ca. 750m from Dùn Bhuirg.

The name Dùn Bhuirg(h) is also found elsewhere in western Scotland, typically referring to sites with Iron Age structures. There are several examples in the Outer Hebrides including: (giving the names as on the OS Explorer map) Dun Bhuirgh, Beàrnaraigh (NF913816), Dun Borve, Barra (NF654013), Dùn Bhuirgh, Harris (approx. NG033944) and Dùn Borve, Skye (NG451481). All these examples almost certainly have the same etymology. Closer to Iona, there is also Dùn Bhuirg in Mull (NM421262).[10]

What is interesting about these names is that many of the sites are described as the dwelling places of fairies in local tradition, typically in association with a well-attested migratory legend; ‘the fairy-hill is on fire’,[11] in the Hebrides more specifically ‘Dùn Bhuirg(h) is on fire’ (‘Dùn Bhuirg(h) na theine’) (also see Cox 2022, pp. 923-4 for more examples and discussion). One version of the story describing Dùn Bhuirg in Mull is recorded as follows:

Once, when a woman in a cottage near happened to say, ‘it is about time the people of the hill were coming along to give me a hand’ (at weaving a large quantity of wool into cloth), she was descended upon by masses of fairies from Dun Bhuirg, who converted all the wool into cloth. When they asked her for payment, she shouted, ‘Dun Bhuirg is on fire!’ They immediately returned into the dun, and have not been seen since (Grinsell 1976, p. 230, quoted from MacNab (1970, 208-9).

Dùn Bhuirgh on Barra has a rich record of this story with at least three different oral accounts recorded in the School of Scottish Studies and Canna collections (now available through Tobar an Dualchais IDs 51723, 81768, 81970[12]).

So, we have a strikingly strong pattern of Dùn Bhuirg(h) names in the Hebrides being viewed as the dwelling places of fairies. Ultimately, the association of Dùn Bhuirg(h) with fairies undoubtedly has its roots in the similarity of the later Gaelic reflex of the Norse element borg in these place-names with the Gaelic term brugh, meaning a fairy dwelling. (see Bateman 2020, pp. 62-3; also cf. Watson 1926, p. 204). In light of this, we might expect there to be a similar association with Dùn Bhuirg on Iona, but this does not appear to be the case. In fact, compared to other well-known features on the island such as Sìthean Mòr, Port a’ Churaich and Dùn Ì, traditions associated with Dùn Bhuirg appear to be disappointingly sparse.[13] Is this surprising? Perhaps not. After all, we might not expect every single Dùn Bhuirg(h) to be known as a fairy dwelling. Also, we cannot assume that such traditions never existed since they could now have been lost. Nevertheless, I think the absence of place-lore describing Dùn Bhuirg as a fairy hill is worth thinking a bit more about considering the ubiquity of this association at comparable sites. After all, we need only look to Sìthean Mòr, located just over 1km to the south-east, to find numerous stories involving fairies. However, could this in fact be the reason for the lack of fairy lore at Dùn Bhuirg? The prominence of Sìthean Mòr as the de facto fairy hill of the island might have meant that Dùn Bhuirg was a less obvious focal point for these stories. On the other hand, it was already established earlier in this blog that geographic proximity is not necessarily a barrier to similar motifs and stories being told about multiple sites.

Another reason may be Dùn Bhuirg’s more remote geographic location compared to some of the other sites featuring prominently in published material (see a similar point made about Druim Dhùghaill above). This would at least explain the absence of traveller accounts compared to the frequently visited sites mentioned above. For now, the absence of fairy lore at Dùn Bhuirg must remain somewhat of a mystery, but it does serve as a reminder of the complex interplay between social, historical and geographic factors which contribute to the sometimes-circumstantial surviving place-name record.

If in the course of my research I have failed to account for any stories or traditions that may be important to our understanding of these sites, please do not hesitate to get in touch via email or on the Iona’s Namescape Twitter.


[1] There are other supernatural beings which in some contexts may be classified as ‘fairies’. This includes various beings associated with the protection of cattle such as the Glaistig which lived ‘in a hole of the rocks in Staonnaig’ (Campbell 1900, p. 179) and the Gruagach, found in connection with a stone in Baile Mòr variously named Clach a’ Bhainne ‘The milk(ing) stone’ and The Gruagach Stone (MacArthur 1990, p. 237 and Tobar an Dualchais ID 84012 part 1, ca. 20:55). For the sake of keeping this blog within a reasonable length, these are not discussed here. Additionally, I do not attempt to provide a complete list of stories of encounters with fairies in Iona, especially those recorded from the 20th century onwards.

In addition to fairies, there are many other supernatural beings found in association with place-names. For example, Alasdair Whyte (2020, pp. 16-58) has recently discussed place-lore associated with a supernatural being (The Cailleach) in a Mull context.

[2] Also see Bateman (2020, pp. 846-60) for further discussion on the characteristics of fairies.

[3] But she notes that it is not certain whether it referred to ‘the great or the little fairy mound’ i.e. Sìthean Mòr or Sìthean Beag.

[4] Metal is often described as having protective properties against fairies (e.g. see CG vol. 2, pp. 328-9)

[5] There is a moral to this story: it concludes with an account of another hunchback named Hugh who hears about what happened to Fachie and attempts to seek help from the fairies. However, he is mean-spirited and mocks the fairy who is unable to complete the song rather than helping him. As punishment, the fairies place a second hump on his back (the one removed from Fachie’s back).

[6] See MacDonald (1994/5, p. 75): ‘F104. Hunchback Cured as Reward for Improving Fairy Song’. For some other examples see Tobar an Dualchais ID 65784 and 74542).

[7] Mairi MacArthur (pers.comm.) also notes that there is a simpler form of this story told by Johnnie Chailein (John Campbell), born at Culdamh in 1905: ‘there was to be a wedding but before going, this Dugald changed his clothes and went out to shoot rabbits; when his body was found next day the gun was lying a short distance away.’

[8] It was excavated by A. C. Thomas in 1957 (Thomas and Megaw 1957, pp. 10-1). Also see Ritchie and Lane (1978-80, pp. 209-29) and Argyll volume 4 (pp. 30-1) for further discussion of the archaeology of the site.

[9] As noted by Richard Cox (pers.comm.) we may cast some doubts on the identification of the specific element of Dùn Bhuirg on Iona being Old Norse borg due to the firmly attested pronunciation ending in a voiced velar plosive (ɡ) rather than a voiced velar fricative (ɤ), as would usually be expected, attested in many other borg-names (e.g. see Cox 2022, p. 543-4). A more detailed discussion of this will be provided in a future publication.

[10] This place-name will be discussed in more detail in Alasdair Whyte, Ainmeannan-Àite Mhuile & Ulbha / The Place-Names of Mull & Ulva (forthcoming).

[11] I am grateful to Richard Cox for bringing this to my attention. Also see Áine O’ Neill (1991) for further discussion of this motif in Ireland.

[12] Also see other recordings of the story with the same informants: IDs 12619, 89324, 62853.

[13] Reeves (1857, p. 267) proposes that the episode in which St Columba sees a ‘heavy storm-cloud’ (VC II 4) and predicts a devastating disease took place on Dùn Bhuirg, but it seems more likely that Dùn Ì is the hill in question (this is discussed by Gilbert Màrkus in one of our previous blogs).