The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan
The MacLeod clan in Scotland has in its possession a mysterious relic that’s been passed down from generation to generation, The Fairy Flag (Am Bratach Sìth) of Dunvegan. The Fairy Flag is known for the numerous traditions of fairies and especially for the magical properties associated with it.
Tradition holds that the flag contains magic that will protect the members of the clan in times of need. The powers attributed to the Fairy Flag include: the ability to multiply a clan's military forces; to save the lives of certain clan folk, to cure plagues, to increase fertility, and the ability to bring herring into the loch at Dunvegan. Many of the traditions relate that if the flag were to be unfurled and waved more than three times, it would vanish or lose its powers forever. However, according to most accounts, the flag has already been used at least twice.
How the Fairy Flag came to be in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, the MacLeod's home, has never been fully revealed, but there are three longstanding traditions that share similar aspects. According to one tradition that is often retold as family lore, the fourth chief of the clan fell in love with a fairy princess who was forbidden to marry a mortal man. Her father eventually relented and she was married to the chief for twenty years before she was forced to return to her homeland of the fairies. When saying her farewells to him at ' Fairy Bridge ' (which crosses a burn about three miles from Dunvegan), she gave him the flag with the promise that when it was waved in times of danger and distress, the fairies would help save the clan, but only three times would the magic work.
An alternate version of this story is recounted where the fairy is only allowed to spend a year and a day with her love. During that time, she gave birth to a boy. When it came time for her to leave, she made the chief promise her that he would never let the baby cry because she would be able to hear it even in the fairy realm. Eventually the baby did begin to cry and the fairy was able to come back from her realm briefly to visit her son. While she was with him, she gave him a blanket to comfort him.
The second tradition has some similarities also to the previous version of events. This time it relates specifically to the events when an heir to one of the MacLeod Chiefs was born. There were great rejoicings at Dunvegan, and the nurse, anxious to join in the festivities, left the baby sleeping in a remote and quiet chamber in the castle. When the blanket which was laid over the child fell off, he awoke crying from the cold, and as no human help was near, a host of fairies hovered round his cradle. They brought this fairy banner and wrapped him in it. When the banqueting clansmen, wanted to see the child, the nurse was found and sent to fetch him. She brought him down dressed in this mystical banner and the men’s hearts were thrilled by the fairies' song which filled the room with melody. They together knew the mighty power of the flag which should save the clan in days of dire need. The flag was taken from the child and was placed in an iron chest to be carefully preserved from generation to generation.
The last tradition is that the flag is of Eastern origin and that a MacLeod family member joined a crusading army in the Holy Land. He was sent on a mission which involved a long and lonely ride through the desert. After narrowly escaping an evil witch, he came to a river and proceeded to cross it by a ford. A fairy maiden rose from the water and opposed his passage, but after a severe struggle he overcame her, and made good his passage over the river. The MacLeod became friends with the maiden, and before they parted, she gave him a box of scented wood. In the box was said to be a magic banner and that the waving of it would bring forth a host of armed men to help its owner. The maiden warned that he should take it home and wave it in danger's hour; but in any case, was not to open the box for a year and a day. If he opened it too soon then for another year and a day no crops will grow, no livestock would thrive, and no children would be born. The young man came home to Skye and presented the box to the Chief's wife, warning her not to open it. The lady's curiosity was so strong that she opened the box at once and immediately a host of armed men appeared. For the next year, all of the other results foretold by the fairy also followed. The magic powers of the flag impressed the Chief, and it was preserved, to be used when such an army might mean salvation from some great peril.
Differing as widely from each other as they do, all traditions agree that the flag was gifted to the clan by the fairies, with a promise that on three occasions the waving of the flag should bring the aid of the donors to save the clan in great emergencies. Tradition states that the flag was unfurled at several clan battles in the 15th and 16th centuries; the flag's magical powers are said to have won at least one of them. Another 19th-century tradition linked the flag to a prophecy which foretold the downfall of Clan MacLeod; but it also prophesied that, in the "far distant future", the clan would regain its power and raise its honor higher than ever before.
The Fairy Flag itself is made of silk, is yellowish-brown in color, and measures about 18 inches (46 cm) squared. It has been examined numerous times in the last two centuries, and its condition has somewhat deteriorated. It is ripped and tattered, is considered to be extremely fragile, and requires extremely careful handling. The flag was originally larger than it now is, and that it has lost some of its distinguishing marks due to time and wear. The flag is covered in small red "elf dots". In the early part of the 19th century, the flag was also marked with small crosses stitched with gold thread, but these have since disappeared.
The high-quality silk of the flag has been stated to have likely originated in the Far East, possibly Syria or Rhodes, and was therefore extremely precious. In 1922, experts from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum dated the fabric to somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. If this is correct, it was woven just as the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, the Pictish kings were rising to power in Scotland. Some believe that the flag may have been an important relic of some sort and one source suggests that it may have been cut from the robe of an early saint. Others have attempted to associate the flag with the Crusades or even a raven banner, which was said to have been used by various Viking leaders in the British Isles.
According to most legends, the Fairy Flag has been waved twice, and twice only, as the magic is said to work only three times and is being saved for when the clan is in most dire need. The Bannatyne manuscript says that, in 1490, the Fairy Flag was carried during a desperate battle between the MacLeod’s and the McDonalds at the Battle of Glendale. The MacDonald’s originally had the upper hand during the conflict until they unfurled the flag and immediately the tide of battle turned. Many of the MacDonald’s were killed and victory went to the MacLeod’s. MacLeod tradition records that the battle was the most tremendous battle that the clan ever fought. Although the clan was victorious, it never fully recovered from its severe losses.
The second time the flag was used was at Waternish in 1580. Again, the MacDonald’s, of the Clanranald branch, were the enemy and the MacLeod’s were hopelessly outnumbered. The MacLeod’s were assembled for a service at Trumpan when the MacDonald’s, who had earlier landed in a fleet of eight ships at Ardmore Bay, surrounded the church and set it on fire. All the worshipers were burned alive apart from one young woman, who reportedly managed to escape by a window. MacLeod’s, alerted by the smoke and the fire, flocked to the church. The Fairy Flag was unfurled and after a tremendous struggle, the MacDonald’s were beaten.
However, different traditions record the flag being waved as many as four times. There are two other occasions that were listed in some manuscripts in which the flag was also flown, which contradicts other reports. One was at the Battle of the Bloody Bay in 1480, a naval battle fought near Tobermory, Scotland. The other time is a much vaguer tradition stating a time when the land was blighted by a plague on the cattle and the MacLeod clan kinsmen were dying of starvation. Having no alternative, the Chief went to the tallest tower of Dunvegan Castle, raised the flag, and Hosts of Fairies returned from the clouds to bring the cattle back to life. There were more than enough well-fattened cattle to feed the clan for the winter to come.
Some researchers question why the flag was not reported to have been waved in the year 1600 when the clan was in a desperate state during the last war with the MacDonald’s of Sleat, but it is said that there was a fear in the minds of men that its third waving might bring about some irretrievable disaster. Alternatively, several manuscripts indicate that the flag was flown fairly frequently, if not always, being taken out to the battlefield whenever the clan went out to war. From all reports, the greatest possible precautions were taken to protect the precious banner. The Chief of the clan marched before the Fairy Flag and was bound to lay down his life in its defense. The standard-bearer carried it, surrounded by twelve men chosen for their great valor.
Clan tradition, preserved in the early 19th century, tells how the Fairy Flag was entrusted to a family of hereditary standard bearers. Only the eldest male of this family was ever allowed to unfurl the flag; the first such hereditary standard bearer was given the honor of being buried inside the tomb of the chiefs, on the sacred isle of Iona.
In 1938, the Fairy Flag was believed to have saved Dunvegan Castle from destruction. It was believed that when a massive fire broke out in the castle, it was the magical powers of the flag that had helped to extinguish the blaze, preventing the damage from being much worse. During World War II, soldiers belonging to the family were said to have carried a picture of the flag with them as they went to war as a lucky charm. The 28th Chief of the clan during wartime volunteered to take the flag to Dover should the Axis troops attempt to invade Britain.
Today, the Fairy Flag is still held in the drawing room of Dunvegan Castle along with other notable heirlooms, such as the Dunvegan Cup, a wooden ceremonial cup decorated with silver plates which dates to 1493, and Sir Rory Mor's Horn which is a drinking horn, made from an ox and tipped in silver.