The Fairy Flag of Dunvegen Castle is such a well-known artifact that it transcends the fairy community. Scottish history buffs and historical novel fans alike recognize it. And it is not just a story — the Fairy Flag exists in its ancient, tattered, and delicate state. It is arguably the main tourist attraction at Dunvegen, and The Reason for a steady stream of tourists making pilgrimage across the Isle of Skye.
Relics, simply for having survived centuries, are awesome to behold. Relics steeped in lore, are fantastic specifically for having survived to embody a story that has transcended ages. Whether said story has been wildly embellished or largely lost, a relic and its story opens a window into an age where we have precious few documented facts. Sagely, the Dunvegan Castle official site points out that “Legends, however fantastic or far-fetched they may appear to be, are rarely without some trace of historical fact.” Intriguing.
Scotlandinfo.eu, a site clearly designed to promote Scottish tourism, has a neatly succinct and wholly unromantic accounting of the most common version of the Fairy Flag legend, covering in several paragraphs the marriage of the fairy princess to the MacLeod chieftain, her eventual departure, leaving Scotland and her infant son to return to her own land. This telling also covers her subsequent return to the MacLeod stronghold when her baby was in distress, and how she wrapped him in her magical shawl — the Fairy Flag — which, so says legend, then burst out in textile-throated song. And between you, me, and the Lamp Post in Lantern Waste, once fabric starts singing on its own, sans a Pixar copyright, enchantment is really the only explanation.
The subsequent value the Clan MacLeod placed on this length of silk, and the tradition of lullaby song that followed, lifted the Fairy Flag into legend over the ensuing centuries. And in her debut romance novel Highlander Untamed, now NYT Bestselling Author Monica McCarty recounts the story over several pages in charming fictional narrative (midway through chapter 8 for those of you who just downloaded that to Kindle) and ties the Fairy Flag legend close to the novel’s plot line — a process about which Monica talked with FairyRoom in an exclusive interview. This is surely only one of many fictional references to the Fairy Flag, but it is the only one I have stumbled across.
However, my favorite twist on the origins of the Dunvegan Fairy Flag comes out of a library project in Ontario, Canada (though this telling is likely found in many places). This version of the story names Harald Sigurdsson, king of Norway from 1047 until 1066, as the importer of the Middle Eastern length of silk several decades before the First Crusade. Apparently Harald believed that the flag possesed magical properties that made him undefeatable in battle. Nearly ten centuries later, ClanMacleod.org declares of the Fairy Flag: “Legend has it that this sacred Banner has miraculous powers and when unfurled in battle, the clan MacLeod would invariably defeat their enemies.” Clearly, this attribute made a lasting impression.
In Harald’s time it was called Landoda, meaning “Land Ravager,” a meaning which feels far from fairy-ish. Harald is not etched into history for being an early Crusader, however. That credential is a footnote to his role as the commander of the losing side of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, late September 1066 — the fatefully exhausting precusor to the Battle of Hastings three weeks later. And we all know how that wound up.
King Harald of Norway, intent on taking the English throne, invaded England near York with an army of fifteen thousand men, and brought his talisman with him. It is well-documented that the Norsemen were caught unprepared by the Saxon-English army, having left their armor on their ships. One supposes that Harald’s Landoda was left with his armor, for he was resoundedly defeated at Stamford Bridge, taking a fatal arrow in the windpipe.
A well-born soldier who survived the defeat, Godred Crovan, is said to have rescued the Landoda and escaped with it refuge with his kinsman the King of Mann. Godred himself in turn became King of Mann in 1079 (perhaps bolstered by the power of the Landoda?). With a little bit of Wikipedeaing, I then identified Olaf the Black (King of Mann 1229-1237) as Godred’s great grandson. But it gets a little sketchy here. The Clan MacLeod claims its descent from Leod, who MacLeod tradition names a younger son of Olaf the Black. But recent studies name Leod as a distant cousin to Olaf’s son Magnus, who reigned as the last King of Mann.
Whether this first Leod, from whence all MacLeods were sprung, was actually a son of the King of Mann, or just an enterprising third-cousin, it’s wholly plausible that as the Kingdom of Mann was being dismantled following the death of Magnus in 1265, Harald’s Landoda made its way into Scotland proper, though not as part of the subsumation of everything Manx by the Scottish Crown.
Picture this: a son of a deposed king must be considered as a matter of course (case in point: the Jacobite heirs, but we get far ahead of ourselves), but a mere third-cousin would likely need some magic to be considered worthy to lead by right. Since not even a shadowy reference of conquest (the other path to leadership) exists, I’d like to believe that the fantastic lore that accompanied this relic was instrumental in bolstering Leod’s claim of leadership, thus paving his way to found one of Scotland’s most enduring clans.
Thus, this very Scottish treasure, with it’s very Scottish 750-year-old fairy story, was before that Manx for two medieval centuries, and before that briefly Norse for two-plus kingly decades, and before that was likely Syrian, and at that was already very old when it left its homeland. It may have started out in the desert simply as attractive protection against the elements for a wealthy woman who favored yellow. Or it may have been woven by Middle Eastern fairies, after all (the Arabic word for Fairy is جنية, incidentally). One can imagine this coming into Harald’s possession either at the hands of a swindler eyeing the easy opportunity to imbue a tattered rag with “magical properties,” or as part of the plunder of conquest. For if purported by local legend to guarantee victory to the soldier who carries it, a crusading king would have assuredly been moved to draw blood to obtain it. But whatever transaction actually occurred in the mid-eleventh century, we shall never know.
Regardless of the origin of the actual flag itself, the legend of the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan was wholly believed by a great many people for a great many years, and not just at the “simple” level of uneducated peasantry. And as recently as the 1940s the powers of the flag were called upon. The last lines in the robust Wikipedia entry for the Fairy Flag says:
During the Second World War, the chief of the clan, Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, received a letter from a member of the clan who attributed his luck during bombing missions over Germany to a photo of the flag which he carried in his pocket.
I love this almost as much as I love that the Fairy Flag may have contributed to the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. Mìorbhaileach!