Reverend Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies”

It is not entirely usual for a respectable, scholarly minister in the Church of Scotland to compile a learned treatise about the mysterious and treacherous world of invisible supernatural beings, as well as the occult ability of Second Sight by which they could be perceived. The Rev. Robert Kirk (1644–92) was minister successively of Balquhidder and Aberfoyle, two parishes on the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands. Kirk translated the psalms into Gaelic; he supervised the printing in London of a Gaelic Bible; and in the last year of his life he composed an extraordinary manuscript entitled ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies’. He was not only writing in an attempt to make sense to his readers – and to himself – of the different folk legends and supernatural beliefs he had heard about the fairies or sìthichean from the people of the Highlands; he was also trying to prove the existence of a local spirit realm in order to vindicate the Christian worldview itself.

In his talk, Dr Stiùbhart will introduce us to Kirk’s life and works, comparing the beliefs presented in the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ to similar, and dissimilar, traditions recorded more recently in the Highlands and beyond. He will also examine Kirk’s other writings, in particular the commonplace books in which, for over two decades, the minister recorded his thoughts and opinions, as well as summaries of what he was reading at the time. How did Kirk try to organise and categorise the many different types of beliefs and stories he had read and heard, from folktales to learned magic? How did he try to make their messages agree with the lessons from the Bible he taught every Sunday? What can we learn from Kirk about what Gaelic-speaking Highlanders really believed about fairies and Second Sight in his lifetime – and how might these beliefs be different from those recorded by folklorists from later generations?


Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart is a Senior Lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands, and Course Leader there for the MSc in Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd (Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History). He has lectured and published extensively on the history, literature, material culture, ethnology, folklore and popular culture of the Scottish Highlands from the seventeenth century onwards, and is often interviewed on these subjects for radio and television.

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9th Jan 2024 8:00 pm - 09:30 pm

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