The Fairy Flag is one of the treasures kept by the chief of Clan MacLeod, a Highland Scottish clan associated with the Isle of Skye. Today, the flag resides in Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the clan’s chief, on the Isle of Skye, and has been described as “rather tattered, made of faded brown silk and carefully darned in places”. Although the flag does not look like much, it is believed to possess mystical powers, and several stories have been told about how this magical object has protected Clan MacLeod over the centuries.
There are two main stories that have been traditionally told about the origin of the fairy flag. The first of these links the flag to the Crusades, thus indicating that the flag came from somewhere in the East. The second one, by comparison, involves fairies, and places events surrounding the flag’s appearance on the Isle of Skye itself.
It has been determined that the fabric of the Fairy Flag is silk from the Middle East (more specifically, Syria or Rhodes). This lends some credence to the story that the flag has its origin in the East. Nevertheless, this object has been dated to between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, at least 400 years before the First Crusade. Still, it may be possible that the Fairy Flag was already treated as a relic by the time of the First Crusade, and only found its way to the British Isles following this military campaign.
The Crusades version of the Fairy Flag story begins with Harald Sigurdsson, known also as Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway who ruled from 1046 to 1066. Prior to becoming the King of Norway, Harald had served as captain of the Varangian Guards in the court of the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople. One of the treasures he brought back to Norway was the Fairy Flag, which was then known as Landoda, or ‘Land Ravager’. The king believed that the flag made him undefeatable in battle, and when Harald embarked on his campaign to conquer England, he took the flag along with him.
The Norse army was ambushed by the English, and it seems that Harald did not have the opportunity to unfurl his magical flag. Harald’s army defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and the king lost his life as a result of an arrow that pierced his throat. It is said that one of Harald’s soldiers who survived the battle, Godred Crovan, managed to rescue the flag, and brought it to the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, where he found refuge with its king, Godred Sigtryggsson, who was also his kinsman. Godfred established himself as the King of Mann in 1079, and the MacLeods are said to claim descent from him.
Harald at the battle of Stamford Bridge. (Public Domain)
The other main story suggests that the Fairy Flag was not obtained from the East, but given to the clan by a fairy. The fourth chief of the clan, Iain Ciar, is said to have been a highly attractive young man. Although many women were attracted to him, he had fancied none of them. One night, the chief is said to have stumbled upon a fairy dwelling, where he saw a fairy princess. The two fell in love instantly, and the princess requested that she be allowed to marry the chief.
The fairy king, however, rejected her request, explaining that unlike fairies, humans will grow old and die, and that grief was inevitable for her. A compromise was reached, and the princess was allowed to be with the chief for a year and a day, after which she would need to return to her people. During this period, the princess gave birth to a son. Eventually, the time came when the princes had to return. Before leaving, she made her husband promise that he would never leave the child alone, and never allow him to cry, and that would be too much for her to bear.
In the weeks after his wife’s departure, the chief kept his promise, though he was depressed. His friends decided to throw him a party in an attempt to cheer him up. As the celebrations were going on, the chief’s spirits began to revive. The merry music and noise from the banquet hall were so loud, that the baby’s nurse decided to leave the nursery to have a peek at the revelry. The baby woke up, and began to cry, though the nurse did not hear him.
The fairy princess heard her child’s cries, and appeared beside him. She took him up, wrapped him in a fairy shawl, and sang to him, thus putting him back to sleep. It was at this point that the chief / nurse entered the nursery. The lullaby was heard, but the person singing it could not be seen. Years later, the child grew up, and told his father what had happened. The shawl became the Fairy Flag, and is believed to be a talisman that protected the clan.
Princess singing lullabies, Illustration by H.J. Ford, 1921 (carolynemerick.com)
If the clan were to find themselves in great danger, all they needed to do was to unfurl the flag and wave it three times. Doing so would bring the fairy legions to their aid. This, however, could only be used three times, after which it would return to where it came from, taking the flag waver with it. The flag is said to have been used twice already, the first when they were vastly outnumbered by their enemies, the MacDonalds, when the latter invaded their lands. When the Fairy Flag was used, the tide of battle turned, and the MacLeods were saved from destruction.
Iona Abbey: The effigy on the floor in the center may mark the location of the burials of several MacLeod chiefs and one flag bearer.
The second time the Fairy Flag was used was when a plague was killing off the clan’s cattle, and the MacLeods were dying of starvation. When the flag was used, the cattle was said to have come back to life. The flag was almost used for the third time during the Second World War, as the clan’s chief, Dame Flora MacLeod offered to wave the flag from the Cliffs of Dover should the Germans attempt to invade Great Britain, but fortunately Clan MacLeod did not need to call upon the magic of the flag and so, according to legend, the MacLeods can call upon the legendary flag one last time.
Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle, a castle belonging to the clan MacLeod Annotation (CC BY-SA 3.0 nl)
Top image: The Dunvegan Cup, Fairy Flag, and Sir Rory Mor’s Horn are heirlooms of the MacLeods of Dunvegan. This photo was taken sometime before 1927. (Public Domain)
Associated Clan MacLeod Societies, 2016. The Fairy Flag Legend. [Online]
Available at: http://www.clanmacleod.org/about-macleods/the-fairy-flag.html
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Available at: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Fairy-Flag-of-the-MacLeods/
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Available at: http://www.scotclans.com/scotland/scottish-myths/symbolic-scotland/flag-dunvegan/
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Available at: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/the-fairy-flag-of-clan-macleod-1-465076
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Available at: http://www.dunvegancastle.com/content/default.asp?page=s2_5
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Available at: http://www.windsorscottish.com/ed-folk-fairyflag.php