In the not too distant past, Scottish peasantry believed that such a thing as elf arrows, or elf shots (arrowheads of flint) were magical items of which fell from the clouds, and were then utilized by fairies, elves, and even witches as weapons with which to shoot at, not only human beings, but especially cattle. However, it was also a widely held belief that if a man or woman could get their hands on one of these potent items, they could then be used as a talisman of sorts by which to ward against many forms of witchcraft, and even thwart the attention of the evil eye itself. It was even thought that they could also be used to, in turn, remedy the very maladies which it had afflicted upon the unfortunate person/cow in the first place. This was usually done by touching the cow with the elf-arrow, or by making it drink the water in which one has been dipped. However, also worth noting, is that In the united parishes of Sandsting and Aithsting, the effects of such a malignant evil were counteracted by folding a sewing-needle in a page taken from a particular part of a psalm-book, and then securing it in the hair of the affected cow. This was considered not only an infallible cure, but also served as a charm against future attacks. Elf arrows, fortunately, were a rarity, and were said to never be found when actively sought after, instead turning up in the most unexpected of circumstances, and places.

Thus Sir Robert Gordon of Straloch, the Scottish geographer, who wrote almost four centuries ago, states that a man, while riding, found one in his boot, and of another incident wherein a bemused woman happened to find one in the breast of her dress. Either way, were a person to discover one of these items, then It was imperative to ensure that it was never exposed to sunlight. If it was, then it was thought to reveal itself to any nearby witch or fairy, who could then recover it and use it as an instrument of evil once more.

This notion is also attested to by one, Dr John Hill Burton, cited by Sir John Evans, who mentions that such a belief was all but an article of faith in Scotland, even as late as 1872, and “that elf-bolts, after finding, should not be exposed to the sun, or they are liable to be recovered by the fairies, who then work mischief with them.”

This ingrained belief among the peasant folk is further expanded upon by one, Mr Hew Morrison, who mentions that in his younger days: “arrowheads of flint were religiously consigned to the nearest loch, or buried out of sight, as instruments of evil;

And then goes on to add to this with an anecdote, wherein, “Even so late as 1866 or 1867 I saw a cow which was said to have been killed by the fairies with these weapons; and when I pointed out to the owner of the animal that her death had been caused by rolling over, and her long horns penetrating the ground and keeping her in a position from which she could not rise, I was told that that was the common way in which the cows fall when struck by the arrows of the shithich or elf-bolts.

However, even though today it is easy to relegate the belief in these arrows to the realm of amusing, even quaint folk tradition, or perhaps even to the ignorance of an uneducated rural class, the ownership and hoarding of such items could truly prove dangerous, whether magical or mundane, for there was a very real fear of the power of such items, so much so that in 1590, the remarkable trial of Katherine Ross occurred, wherein the Lady Fowlis was accused of witchcraft and sorcery. She was charged with having made clay effigies of her husbands children, and then shot at them with elf-arrows. No mention is made of the manner in which she was able to fire those projectiles, but they were probably shot in a similar manner to that described by Isobel Gowdie in her own trial for witchcraft, of which is recorded further below.

In the “Dittay against the PannellLady Fowlis is accused thus:

“In the fyrat, (1)Thow art accusit for the making of twa pictouris’ of clay, in cumpany with the said Cristiane Roiss and Mariorie Neyne M’Allester, alias Laskie Loncart), in the said Cristian Roisis westir chalmer in Canorth; (2)the ane, maid for the distructioune and consumptioune of the young baird of Fowlis, and the vthir for the young Ladie Balnagoune; to the effect that the ane thairof sould be Putt att the Brig-end of Fowles, and the vther att Ardrnoir, for distruetioun of the saidis young Laird and Lady:) And this sould hail bene performit at Alhallowmes, in the year of God Im. ye. lxxvij zeiris: Quhilkis (3)twa pictouris, being sett on the north syd of the chalmer, the said Loskie Loncart tuik twa elf arrow heides and delyuerit ane to ye Katherene, and the vther, the Mid Cristian Rois Malcumsone held in her awin hand; and thow schott twa schottis with the said arrow heid, att the Mid Lady Balnagowne, and Loskie Loncart schott thrie schottis at the said young Laird of Fowlis. In the meane tyme, baith the pictouris brak, and thow commandit Loskie Loncart to mak of new vthir twa pictouris thaireftir, for the saidis persounes;) quhilk the said Loskic Loncart tuik vpoun hand to do.”

  1. You are accused of making two pictures of clay, in the company of Kristine Ross and Marjory Neyne McAllaster, alias Loskie Loncart-.
  2. The one, made for the destruction and consumption of the young Laird of Fowlis, and the other for the young Lady Balnagowne; to the effect that one should be put at the bridge-end of Fowles, and the other at Ardrnoir, for the destruction of the young Laird and Lady:
  3. Two pictures, being set on the north side of the chamber, Loskie Loncart took two elf arrows heads and delivered one to Katherine, and the other, Kristine Ross held in her own hand; and you shot two shots with the arrow head, at the Lady Balnagowne, and Loskie Loncart shot three shots at the young Laird of Fowlis. In the meantime, both the pictures broke, and you then commanded Loskie Loncart to make two new pictures of the children.

And then, in the remarkable and aforementioned confession of Isobel Gowdie, one of the Auldearn witches of 1662, we are gifted a curious and in depth account of the actual origin, manufacturing and practical usage of such dire weaponry:

“As for Elf-arrow-heidis, the Divell shapes them with his awin hand, [and syne delivers thame] to Elf-boyes, who whyttis and dightis them with a sharp thing lyk a paking neidle; bot [quhen I wes in Elf-land ?] I saw them whytting and dighting them. Quhen I wes in the Elfes howssis, they will haw werie…… them whytting and dighting; and the divell gives them to ws, each of ws so many, quhen…… Thes that dightis thaim ar litle ones, hollow, and boss-baked. They speak gowstie lyk. Quhen the divell gives them to ws, he sayes,

‘Shoot thes in my name
And they sall not goe heall hame !’
and quhan ve shoot these arrowes (we say)—
‘I shoot yon man in the Divellis name,
He sall nott win heall hame !
And this salbe alswa trw;
Thair sall not be an bitt of him on lieiw !’

We haw no bow to shoot with, but spang them from of the naillis of our thowmbes. Som tymes we will misse: bot if they twitch, be it beast, or man or woman, it will kill, tho’ they haid an jack wpon them.”

This one is a little trickier for me to translate, but the jist of it goes like this:

“As for Elf-arrow-heads, the Devil shapes them with his own hand, and then delivers them to the Elf-boys, who whittle and sharpen them with a sharp thing like a paking needle; for when I was in Elf-land I saw them whittling and sharpening them. when I was in the houses of the elves, they will have worked them…… them whittling and sharpening; and then the Devil gives them to us, he gives each of us so many, when…… Those little ones finish whittling and sharpening them, hollow, and then boss-baked. They speak gowstie like. When the devil gives them to us, he says,

Shoot these in my name
And they shall not go heall hame!’
and when you shoot these arrows say—
‘I shoot that man in the Devils name,
He shall not win heall hame!
And this said also true;
There shall not be one bit of him left!’

We have no bow to shoot with, but flick them with our thumbnails. Sometimes we will miss: but if they touch, be it beast, or man or woman, it will kill, even if they were wearing armor.”

And lastly, here is another contemporary account concerning elf-arrows, of which not only attests to the debilitating effect such an attack has on the unfortunate beast, but also seems to, interestingly enough, allude to a very real phenomenon wherein the animal presents, not only a magical sickness, but also an explainable physical trauma:

“(The stricken cow) -refuses its food, looks languid, and breathes hard. The old knowing women rub and search the hide of the beast, where they pretend to find holes, not in the hide, but in the membrane under it. These they rub well with their fingers, and bathe them with salt and water. When all the holes are thus found out and rubbed, two table-spoonfuls of salt are dissolved in half a Scotch pint of cold water, a little of it poured in the ears, and the remainder poured down its throat; and after some time is thus spent in going through this process, the animal generally recovers. Some silver is put in the water when the salt is dissolving in it.” And the writer goes on to then add, “I do not pretend to account for this distemper or cure, but I have felt what they termed holes, and have seen all the ceremonies performed.”

PS. The next time you’re out walking through the woods and find a stubborn stone lodged in your boot, instead of tossing it away, maybe give it a wee once over. You never know, you might just have been the intended target of a tiny sniper with a bad aim.

Cinead MacAlpin.