THE CHANGELING

She blessed the baby and spoke tenderly to him

Many years ago there was a great trade in the smuggling and sale of whisky from the many illicit stills that were hidden in the hills and glens of Speyside. A couple of enterprising young Speyside lads who were involved in this lucrative trade regularly made  trips, over various secret routes, from the area around Glenlivet and Glenrinnes to sell their goods in Badenoch and Fort William,

On one occasion, in Glenlivet, they were loading their pack horses with whisky distilled by a friend who was one of their regular suppliers. Once their small barrels of whisky were secured they were standing at the door of the croft, having a farewell dram with their friend and his wife. Suddenly, they heard the couples recently born baby scream out as if in pain. The mother went into the house and blessed the baby then spoke tenderly to him as she gently rocked his cradle. This seemed to soothe the bairn and the menfolk’s attention turned back to their drams, before the lads headed off to deliver their cargo.

They had not gone more than a few miles when they heard a whimpering sound coming from the heather by the side of the track. Looking around they found, to their great surprise, a bonny wee bairn lying swaddled in a warm tartan plaid at the road-side. Their surprise turned to horror as they realised that the bairn was their friend’s new born!

After a few minutes pondering this strange turn of events the lads realised that fairies must have taken away the human bairn and left a changeling in its place. The lads concluded that the baby must have been dropped here when the mother had given the distressed child the holy blessing back at the croft. It was well known throughout the area that fairies often replaced human babies with their own kind as they believed that fairie children thrived on a diet of human breast milk.

Being nearer to their destination than the croft they decided to take the bairn with them and look after him until their business was done. The lad’s intention was to reunite the parents with the wee lad on the way home.

Some days later, they arrived back at the croft but said nothing about finding the child who was hidden in a bundle of blankets secured on one of their ponies. The mother was glad to see them safely returned  but was distressed because, since they had left, the baby had been struck by a strange disease and no one in the  glen knew what ailed him but few thought he would recover. As she was telling them this, the baby whimpered and sobbed between uttering  strange, animal like, snorts, screams and roars..

On witnessing this, the lads went out to their ponies and returned with the couple’s real baby in very healthy condition and told the couple how they had found him. The mother then placed the baby back in his cradle while the lads put the changeling into a creel with some straw around him in order to burn him. It was widely believed that the best ways to be rid of changelings were by holding it underwater or holding it over a fire. These methods would expose the fairie child and force it to return home to its own kind.

Realising how the lads were intending to deal with him, the changeling decided not to hang around to suffer his fate. He uttered a hellish scream before flying up the smoke-hole in the roof. Turning menacingly as he reached this smoky exit he screamed at the couple that the arrival of their guests had saved them and their baby from a very different ending…………

Scottish fairies and foundlings

A strong belief in Scottish folklore is that fairie babies are healthier if delivered by a human 'howdie' (a Scots word for a midwife) and that, in order to thrive, they should be fed on human breast milk. The wee folk or fairies seemed to steal only good natured human newborns, leaving a thrawn and troublesome replacement. In stories where the mother was abducted instead of the baby, the woman tended to be  young, pretty and blonde.

In  Scottish folklore the baby was sometimes eaten by the abductors but other stories describe the baby being given as an sacrifice to Auld Nick to pay the fairy folks’ ‘Tithe to Hell’ that fell payable every seven years. as described in the Scottish Ballad ‘Tam Lin’

"And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
At the end of every seven years,
We pay a tithe to Hell."

The many superstitions and tales regarding the purpose of changelings survived in Scotland for centuries and the symptoms to beware of were a baby’s constant fidgeting and continual crying; unusual facial features or curiously distorted limbs; constant demands to suckle at the mother’s breast, without seeming satisfied  and being able to speak a few days after birth. Changeling babies were blamed for any ill-fortune that befell the household, A changeling could cause fresh milk to curdle, crops to fail and illness to plague the household and their animals.