The Fairy Flag with other heirlooms of the MacLeod
The fairy flag is a fragile scrap of yellow silk material (measuring about 18 square inches – 116 square cms) that is preserved in a glass case which hangs on the wall of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The flag is covered in small red ‘elf dots’. It may not look much to those viewing it but its value is far greater than the tattered woven threads would suggest. This is because it is a relic from the Early Middle Ages, an era from which we have few documented facts. The flag has been linked to the crusades, as well as to the war banner of Harald III, King of Norway. However, as our story shows, for many centuries it was also believed that it was a gift from a fairy mother to her child – a future heir to the clan MacLeod. It was given with a promise that on three occasions when he or his clan were in grave danger, if they waved the flag the fae (fairy people) would help them.
It is generally agreed that so far it has been waved twice, although the circumstances of the waving may vary in different accounts. This means there should still be some magic left in the ancient Fairy Flag and, despite its tattered and delicate state, like other Relics steeped in lore, it continues to engage peoples’ imaginations. Although today few people believe in fairies, the flag is still an important tourist attraction and the reason that many people travel to Dunvegen, the ancestral home of the MacLeod.
Why did people believe in the story?
There was nothing our ancestors liked more than the telling and re-telling of a good story and it mattered little if the boundaries between fact and fiction got blurred. In the Early Middle Ages, tales of fairies were not stories for children, indeed there was a widespread belief in three realms, - the world of the living, the world of the dead and the third kingdom – that of the fairies. There are many stories of marriages between humans and fairy folk and such a marriage would have been thought befitting of a strong clan chief. In the violent times of the warring clans, it would have been an advantage to believe you had the power of the fae on your side.
The fae, although immortal, were not seen as they are today. They were believed to be closer in height and needs to humans. Indeed, some people have suggested that fairies were a long distance memory of an ancient race of people that were displaced to the margins of the land by invading forces, dating to times before the Vikings or Celts (although currently these ideas have fallen out of favour with scholars). Others, however, such as Sir Reginald MacLeod, 27th Chief of Clan MacLeod, had no difficulty in believing they actually existed. In the 1920’s, when he took the Fairy Flag to the Department of Textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to have it mounted in its current frame, he listened politely as Alan J. B. Wace, an archaeologist, outlined evidence that it may have been the flag of Harald III of Norway. On hearing this Sir Reginald replied, "Mr Wace, you may believe that, but I know that it was given to my ancestor by the fairies." And Mr Wace’s reply: "Sir Reginald, I bow to your superior knowledge."
Are there other versions of the story?
The most well-known version of the story, the one on this site, is where the heir of the MacLeod falls in love with a fairy but they are only allowed to marry for a year and a day before she has to return to her own people. One day, hearing, from the fairy realm, her son crying, she goes to him and cradles him back to sleep, wrapping him in a fairy shawl. Many years later, the young man, tells his father that, should they ever find themselves in mortal danger, they can wave the shawl and the fae will come to their aid. However, they can only use it three times. So far it has been used when the MacLeod were overrun in a battle and to prevent starvation of the population. However, there are alternative versions of the story. In one version the fairy gives the shawl to her husband as she bids him farewell at the Fairy Bridge (located about 3 miles from Dunvegan) rather than her son. She promises that if it is waved in times of great danger, help would be given but on the third use both the flag and its bearer would disappear never to be seen again.
In other legends, the flag is obtained by a MacLeod returning from a Crusade to the Holy Land. He meets a hermit who gives him food and shelter and warns him of a dangerous spirit or ‘She Devil’ that guards the pass. MacLeod defeats the She Devil who rewards him for conveying some secrets to her friends by revealing to him the future destinies of the Clan. She also gives him her girdle, telling him to convert it into a banner that can then be used in times of great need. In another version, the spirit is a witch and, after defeating her, he meets a fairy who gives him a box of scented wood; she tells him it contains several other smaller boxes, fitted inside one another. Inside the innermost box is a magic banner which, when waved, would bring forth a host of armed men to aid its owner. Once again it can only be used three times. Tradition also says that it is only the Clan head or oldest male child that is allowed to unfurl the flag.
Who were the MacLeod’s and is there any truth in the Legend?
A depiction of a McLeod by R. R. McIan in 1845.
Legends, however fantastic or far-fetched usually have some trace of historical fact. For centuries Skye was indeed dominated by two great warring clans. One was the MacLeod’s (who occupied parts of Skye, Harris and Lewis), the other was the MacDonalds (who occupied parts of Skye, Uist and Eigg). They were bitter enemies and fought many battles for dominance.
There are three battles during which, old documents suggest, the flag may have been used. One was in 1480 when Angus Og MacDonald challenged John MacDonald for the chieftainship of the Clan at the battle of Bloody Bay. The MacLeods fought on the side of John MacDonald. Although other sources deny that they used the flag on this occasion, as the MacLeod lost this battle and the MacDonalds (now led by Angus Og) raided northern Skye to take revenge on them. This act saw the beginning of years of unrest. Another candidate for when the flag was waved was during the Battle of Glendale, fought around 1490. At one point during this conflict, the MacLeods were on the verge of giving way to the invading MacDonalds. Just at this moment, the mother of Alasdair Crotach, chief of the MacLeods, ordered the Fairy Flag to be unfurled. The MacLeod clans redoubled their efforts and despite immense losses eventually won the battle.
This, however, did not see the end of the clan wars. Even greater atrocities were to follow culminating when the MacLeods raided the MacDonald-held Isle of Eigg and massacred hundreds in a cave used for worship. A reprisal attack was launched by the MacDonald men a few years later at Trumpan church on Skye; the church was barricaded and set alight whilst full of worshipers, killing all inside except one mortally wounded girl who managed to raise the alarm. The MacLeods rose up and pursued the MacDonald killing almost every MacDonald in the ensuing Battle at Ardmore Bay in 1578. This is the final battle suggested as a possibility for when the flag was used. It was known as the Spoiling of the Dyke because of all the bodies buried there.
Later that century, it seemed that rivalry would cease when Margaret MacLeod wed Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald. It was the custom in the Highlands for a marriage to have a trial period – a ‘hand-fasting’ for one year. If the partnership did not work at the end of the year, it could be terminated and the wife returned to her family. During that year Margaret lost an eye and failed to produce an heir. At the end of the year, Donald supposedly returned her sitting backwards on a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed man and accompanied by a one-eyed dog. Head of the Clan, Rory Mor MacLeod was enraged, and the ‘War of the One-Eyed Woman’ began. This culminated in 1601 in a ferocious battle in Coire na Creiche. The result was a victory for the MacDonalds, although both clans suffered heavy losses. Later that year the MacDonalds headed for Skye. They raided the north of the island, driving cattle down towards Glen Brittle. This could have been the incident in the story of the cattle dying. The Macleods retaliated but were once more defeated. For Scotland’s Privy Council things had finally gone too far and both leaders were ordered to surrender and call an end to all hostilities.
Where did the flag originate?
The Fairy Flag
With advancements in science, relics today can tell their own story. Whilst fairy stories are impossible to prove, other information can be ascertained: the fabric, is silk from the Middle East (Syria or Rhodes); experts have dated it between the 4th and 7th centuries A.D., in other words, at least 400 years before the First Crusade. In the 1920s, Alan J. B. Wace, an archaeologist, did a detailed analysis of the artefact and the flag's origins, including evidence that it once belonged to king Harald III of Norway. This has become a popular theory. Harald Sigurdsson was a renowned general and served as joint commander of forces in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Among the many treasures he brought from the Middle East was a banner of yellow silk, a flag said to be imbued with supernatural powers.
Once back in Norway, Harald made a claim for the Crown, funding his campaign with the money he had made in Constantinople. He ruled jointly with his nephew, Magnus the Good, who died in 1047, leaving Harald the sole ruler of Norway from 1047 until 1066. The king treasured his flag above all his other possessions, believing it to be his Landoda (‘Land Ravager’) and made him undefeatable in battle. However, he died during in 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York, whilst making an attempt to invade and conquer the English Throne. Godred Crovan, a soldier who survived the defeat, rescued the precious banner and kept it in his possession while he sought refuge with his kinsman, Godred Sigtryggsson, King of Mann and the Isles. Godred Coven established himself as King of Mann in 1079, and his line ruled until 1265. It is from this Clan the MacLeod claim descent.
Was there a Prophesy attached to the flag?
Dunvegen, the ancestral home of the MacLeod
As noted, there is a prophesy attached to the flag in some stories and later predictions were also made. The writer Norman Macleod (1783–1862) wrote that a seer predicted that, when the third Norman son of an English lady should perish accidentally, when the "Maidens" (three large rocks in the ocean belonging to MacLeod) should be sold to the Campbells, when a fox had young ones in one of the turrets of the Castle and, particularly, when the Fairy enchanted banner should be for the last time exhibited, the glory of the MacLeods would then depart and much of the estate sold. The Clan’s fortunes would only be recovered in the distant future when another chief called Ian Breac should arise. In 1799 most these things happened but it is still hoped that the glory of the MacLeod's will return.
And what of the flag in recent times?
In the mid-20th century, the Fairy Flag was said to have extinguished a fire at Dunvegan Castle. During the Second World War, men from the MacLeod clan carried pictures of the flag in their pockets to act as a talisman. Dame Flora MacLeod, 28th Chief of Clan MacLeod, received a letter from a clan member who attributed his luck during bombing missions over Germany to a photo of the flag which he carried in his pocket. Whether the photographs protected the Clan during the war is not known, but John MacLeod, also admitted to carrying a picture in his wallet when he fought the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s. During the Second World War, it is also said that Dame Flora kindly offered to wave the Fairy Flag from the Cliffs of Dover in the event that the Germans tried to invade Great Britain. It is unknown whether the War Cabinet slept more peaceably in their beds with the knowledge that this magic artefact was at their disposal.